Alexis didn’t like it when her mother started going to New York without her. She had always loved traveling on the train. During the day her mother would leave the door to their sleeper compartment open and let Alexis roam up and down the passageways, popping in and out of other compartments, under the watchful eye of the porters, meeting all sorts of interesting people, who seemed to like talking to her. She didn’t know that she had good manners for her age and was very charming with her nearly white hair and her round dimpled face, which was dominated by her arresting blue eyes.
Alexis particularly liked the porters. They were black men for the most part; she always thought of them as, licorice men. She occasionally saw black folks around Misty, but they seemed to be more chocolate colored. The men working the sleeper cars looked like licorice to Alexis, so she assumed that they weren’t the same as the black folks. Though she hated licorice, she liked the licorice men, dressed in the railroad’s livery, who gracefully walked up and down the moving train oblivious to its sometime erratic motion, tending to the needs and whimsy of the first class passengers.
When the train approached each stop, a porter would drop down on one knee and speak to Alexis as if she was an adult, “Miss Alexis, you go on back to your mama, and you close that door. Keep your mama safe until we have left the station.” Alexis would scamper back to their compartment and gravely close the door, telling her mother to stay inside at the station, while her mother hid her amusement behind her book or magazine.
Alexis liked to, as she saw it, lead her mother to the dining car at meals, where they sat together and ate as the countryside, or the cityscapes passed outside the window. She especially liked the ice cream. Her mother always let her have as much ice cream as she wanted on the train. Alexis thought the ice cream on the train was much better than any she ever had at home, though she would have never told the faithful Eileen that. Her mother had taught her that when someone makes something special for you, you tell them that it is the best that you have ever had. Of course Eileen’s pecan pie was the best, so it wasn’t hard for Alexis to remember to say so.
She was very upset when her mother stopped taking the train and started flying. Though she had gotten to fly with her mother and grandmother, the year before, she wasn’t allowed to go with her mother on the trips to New York. The adults said that without Nana to help, it was too much for her mother to travel with her by air. Alexis didn’t understand that reasoning, since she would have been just as able to look after her mother on a plane, as she had on the train. It would have been easier without stopping at all those stations.
Over time Alexis had become used to the new order, her mother leaving and her father staying with her, or her father leaving, her and her mother alone to take care of the farm, when he made his trips. She had never gone with her father so though she missed him, she did resent his absences. When one parent was away, it was fun to have the other all to herself, to look after.
Alexis enjoyed helping her parents pack for his long trips. He also took a lot of short day trips to Dallas or Houston. Though he didn’t take a suitcase that she could help pack, those trips were still fun because he always brought Alexis something nice from the cities; unintentionally instilling in Alexis the idea that Cities were fun places filled with fun things. Her father was very orderly when he packed, laying everything out on the big bed in his room, and talking to Alexis as he worked.
“Okay, I am going to be in Tulsa for seven days. The folks in Tulsa seem to relate to me better when I am wearing a suit. So I had better make sure …” he would continue talking to himself, making Alexis feel that he was talking to her, and seeking her opinion. When he finished packing he would become busy with his back turned long enough for Alexis to tuck something special into his case, like a small stuffed toy to keep him from being lonely while he was away.
Alexis’ mother was a different story. She grabbed things from the dresser and the closet and shoved them into the suitcases quickly before escaping the room and finding somewhere else to be. Later Alexis saw her father slip into the room and carefully repack the cases, removing multiples of things that his wife wouldn’t need on the trip and adding items she would need, which she had completely overlooked.
Towards the end of January, when it seemed that winter would never end, Alexis was woken up in the middle of the night. Her father was rushing around hustling her mother out the door to the old truck. Her mother was dressed with just a coat over her nightgown, and her feet in house slippers. As her mother rushed off, without even one suitcase, Alexis was frightened. Her mother looked scared, and even worse her father had looked white as a ghost. The arms that Eileen had wrapped tightly around her as her parents fled seemed to be trembling with fear.
Alexis didn’t know that the poor woman had been woken from a sound sleep to rush out of her own house. She drove her to rarely used sedan at high speed to the Archies’ farm, to take care of Alexis as her mother was taken to the hospital. “Your momma is going to be okay, Alexis. You just wait and see, your mother will be okay,” said Eileen, trying to reassure herself as well as the child.
Eileen took Alexis back up to her room and lay down on the narrow bed with her and held her through the rest of the night. Alexis was soon asleep, and when she awoke in the morning she had no idea that Eileen had lain awake through the last hours of darkness worrying, fearing that the child would lose her mother.
Eileen made Alexis’ breakfast in a distracted manner, though she seemed to relax a little after an early phone call. Eileen, who normally eschewed using the phone, made several calls from Kelly’s office, with the door closed. Later her husband came to the house with a brown paper bag that Eileen took upstairs, leaving her Mister visited with Alexis in the kitchen over milk and cookies. When Eileen returned her pajamas and robe were gone and she was dressed as Alexis was used to seeing her.
After her husband had said goodbye with a very worried look on his face, Eileen did her best to make the day seem normal for Alexis. Alexis was puzzled about how her parents had left the night before, but as the day settled into routine and she followed the whispering farmhands around on their chores, she forgot the fear and agitation of the night.
When, finally, she heard her father’s truck coming down the drive, she ran out to meet him, disappointed that her mother wasn’t with him. Eileen had followed her and was standing on the veranda looking at Kelly’s haggard face, she feared the worse.
“Oh, Mr. Archie …” Eileen started, her voice trailing off.
“She is going to make it Eileen. She was in surgery for hours, but she will make it. My wife is going to come back,” said Kelly, a weak smile gracing his face.
To Alexis things seemed to get back to normal at the farm, though her father was always leaving to go visit her mother. That was strange since he had never gone to visit her before when she was away. Alexis asked to visit too, only to be informed that children couldn’t visit the hospital.
“I don’t like hospitals,” announced Alexis to her father not long after he had once again informed her that she couldn’t go.
“I don’t like hospitals either, sweetie. I wish your mother didn’t have to be there,” said Kelly hugging her. “I wouldn’t be going, but your mother needs cheering up. Hospitals are not fun places.” Alexis drew lots of pictures for her father to take to her mother to cheer her up at the HOSPITAL place.
After what seemed like forever to Alexis, but in real time it was only three weeks, the house began to see some unusual activity, starting in the parlor, where most of the furniture was removed and taken up to the attic. A woman in a white uniform showed up and took over the small bedroom where Bennie slept when he was at the farm. It seemed that the woman-in-white took over the whole house to Alexis. She ran around directing things to be scrubbed with a fowl smelling concoction she had whipped up in a mop bucket, and kept at it until even the floors were scrubbed to within an inch of being worn through. Kelly escaped the activity by grabbing Alexis and retreating to his office to read to her or out to the barnyard to keep busy. When the bossy woman was satisfied that not a single germ was alive in the house, a big truck delivered a strange looking bed that was brought into the house and installed in the parlor.
Then they brought Alexis’ mother home in an ambulance. Genevieve was so thin and pale, Alexis had to be talked into approaching the still figure, which barely made a bump under the white coverlet, close enough to realize it was her mother, greatly wasted from her ordeal. When Kelly picked Alexis up and stood her on a stool beside the strange bed, Genevieve’s hand drifted up slowly and touched her cheek like a whisper of air, and said, “I love you baby.”
“I love you too Mommy. I am glad you are home,” said Alexis, worried, but not really understanding why she was worried.