Francis fanned herself as she lay reclined in her backyard. The heat was pressing in on her skin. The air thick and heavy as she tried to breath. She was used to it. Now it was only a reminder of how trapped she felt. The smell of smoke filled her nostrils and reminded her of the long ago camping trip to Yellowstone with Charles and little Tony, who had been only five at the time. It had been a fun trip, at least the parts she remembered. Some of the other memories, she tried to forget. But the far away forest fire that now filled her neighborhood with haze brought them back.
The muffled, sweaty panting of Charles fumbling drunkenly at her long johns and ripping them. His hot beer breath beating against her skin. The dissatisfaction Francis felt as she held her tongue even though a rock jabbed into her back through the tarp floor of the tent. It was her duty she told herself.
The next day she could tell that Charles was hung over and ornery. He snapped at Tony for being scared to pee in the weeds. Francis was almost grateful for the quiet walk as she took the teary eyed Tony down the footpath to the closest latrine. The group canoe trip also went badly. Charles barked at her from the stern of the canoe.
“On the other side! Paddle on the other side, Francis!” Even the way he said her name then, FRRRAN-sis! She had felt like dirt, like she couldn’t do anything right. It wasn’t her fault. The last time she had paddled a canoe was when she had been in the scouts. It just wasn’t something she did enough to be good at. He even yelled at her when she looked over her shoulder to check on Tony. The five year old had his lips glued shut and his eyes were tearing up again. He was not having fun being pickle in the middle for all the barbs that were hurled at Francis.
“Look ahead, you have to pay attention to where we are going!” Francis cringed. The other canoers shot glances at her. She tried to make herself small inside her life jacket. As if she could get compact enough to disappear altogether. It didn’t work though and as soon as they pulled up to a sandbar for lunch, Charles had stomped off into the brush. Francis helped Tony out of the boat and wiped his tears.
“Let’s not let anything ruin your fun,” she whispered and sent him off to play with the other children. Charles returned when the party had unpacked their sandwiches. He stayed off with the men, doing whatever men do and talking about whatever men did. Francis didn’t care. She sat around with the other mothers, but didn’t add a word to the conversation. She could see their eyes flicker over her from time to time. Afterwards they picked up all their trash and Francis refastened Tony’s life jacket on. She stood by the canoe waiting for Charles. The river guide came up to her.
“Are you ready to go, Mrs. Johnson?”
“Yes, I’m…” The inquiry caught her off guard. For the first time she actually looked at him. His skin was bronze from the sun. The first couple buttons of his shirt were undone in the summer heat and the muscles of his uncovered legs and arms rippled, “just waiting for my husband…” As she looked around for Charles, he was already heading out into the water in another canoe.
“I thought he could use a bit more challenge, so I sent him off with my partner. I think though, if we really try and watch the current right, we can still beat him back.”
Francis laughed nervously. It was tempting to show up Charles, but then she have to deal with the sulky attitude that followed. She nodded and followed his instructions as they got the canoe onto the river again. She twisted in her seat, “I’m sorry, what did you say your name was again?”
“Greg.” He smiled at her. His teeth looked even whiter against his tan skin. “And you’re Tony, right?” Tony nodded enthusiastically. “Alright, Tony, you’re the navigator, it’s your job to make sure we keep going downstream and from time to time I’ll need you to point out where your dad is, because we’re going to win the race back, aren’t we?” Tony laughed.
“I don’t know, Greg…I’m not very good,” Francis began, but he waved off her comment.
“Let’s ease over to the left coming up here…” The rest of the river trip had been a breeze. Tony kept laughing, Francis found herself laughing. Now she lay reclining in her backyard. The sun blocked by the haze. The heat intense as beads of sweat formed on her skin. Somewhere in the street Tony and the other kids were biking. The sound of the ice cream truck bell pierced her reverie. Greg. Something inside her felt empty. She had forced herself to forget Greg years ago. Tony was twelve now. Where was Greg?
She inhaled the smell of smoke. Deep, deep into her lungs and blew it out as if she had just sucked it off one of Charles’ expensive cigars. The scent was much better than tobacco though. It was intoxicating. She closed back her eyes and went back to her vacation and she rewrote it. Instead of Charles, she was there with Greg. Every minute of it and a few hours she made up on her own. Things Charles would never do…
“Mom! Mom!” Tony ran around the corner of the house and Francis’ mind returned to their small suburb.
“Yes, what is it?” she spoke slowly, sleepily.
“Johnny says the circus train is going to pass through town and he’s going to go watch it. Can I go too?” Tony said excitedly. Francis pretended to think about it.
“Yes, but it’s going to cost you.” Francis turned her head and pointed to her cheek.
“Golly, mom, thanks. You’re the best!” Tony darted over, kissed her cheek and darted off around the house. Frances pulled her knees up to her chest. The emptiness was still there. Those memories weren’t real, she reminded herself, you just made them up.