The funeral was over before the Connors even got there. A rain storm sat over Ohio like a gorilla, delaying their landing for three and a half hours. Mark, Gregís father, swore at their luck while his mother methodically looked through the phone book for a reliable auto rental service: by the time they arrived, their ride, Uncle Phil, was no longer waiting outside the airportís gift shop. "He hates you, Alice," Gregís father said flatly, pocketing his hands in his raincoat. "I didnít think he wouldó"
"Itís not him, itís her," Gregís mother interrupted, adjusting her glasses before turning a page in the phone book. Her bangs hung over her gray eyes like a barrier. "Even now, Momís out to get me."
Mark patted her back in a husbandly way, then wandered off toward the airport restaurant. It had been a three hour flight, not counting the delay. Greg was sick of waiting for the funeral; he had no memory of his motherís mother. Through the giant airport windows, the heavy rain was already starting to fade, as if its only purpose had been to delay their flight. He walked across the enormous lobby to the airportís gift shop. It was surprisingly similar to the shop in the Albany airport: postcards of planes, models of planes, mousepads, T-shirts, and keychains of planes. It was all boring as hell.
Two hours later, now 6:30 p.m., the family rolled into the graveyard. They had been traveling since eight in the morning, a full day of travel. The rental car smelled new and stale, like a pack of cigarettes. Greg put down the book he was reading. Finding the grave was an adventure in itself as night approachedóthere were a number of fresh graves so the family had to walk up to each stone as if it was grandmaís. At the fifth stone they found it, Rachel Mary Miller, née Warren. "Itís a nice stone," Mark offered.
The stone was ugly and small. Greg stood before it, holding his hands before his body. He felt awkward and wanted to be home. There was the night ahead of them and the day after it; another night, and then they would leave for Albany in the morning. Gregís father was using the funeral as an excuse to visit his old war buddy, who lived not an hour away.
"Why did we bother coming?" Alice whispered to Mark, who wrapped his arm around her shoulders. Greg heard the whisper; he looked up to see if his mother was crying, but she wasnít. He looked down again. He had never seen her cry.
The Morgan family lived in a ranch house in the Ohio suburbs, with a small front yard and a smaller backyard. The street (along with the rest of Ohio it seemed) was smooth and level. It had the type of uniformity that Greg had only seen as the butt of jokes on television. Before the family could get out of their rental car, the Morgans turned on a porch light and came outside to meet them.
"Mark," a heavyset man called from the doorway.
"Dave," Gregís dad replied, as if exchanging a secret code at some military outpost. It was their first meeting in twenty years.
Greg was ready to fall asleep as soon as he entered the door. He sat in the kitchen where his father and mother were drinking it up with the Morgans. Alice and Daveís wife, Mona, hit it off eventually. Mona was aging well for a forty-something woman. Her red hair, she told Alice confidentially, was all natural. Aliceís plain hair was not much to talk about, but Alice mentioned that she was an associate at a law firm in Albany, and Mona replied by telling her she was a homemaker. They finally found common ground in discussing their children: Aliceís Greg and Monaís Allison. Allison was sixteen, Greg heard, two years older than himself. Unfortunately, she wasnít home. Greg sat in silence while his mother used his body as a prop for her stories.
Mark and Dave, meanwhile, did shots from a dust-coated whiskey bottle that Dave had pulled from a lower cabinet. Greg could imagine twenty years ago, in some foreign country, these two men in younger bodies, doing exactly the same thing. Soon, they retired to the living room for privacy. The men talked loudly for the most part, but quietly at times, so either Greg or their wives wouldnít hear. And quieter still at other, more solemn moments.
Eventually, Allison came home. "How was your date?" Mona asked, showcasing her daughter for Alice.
"It went well," Allison said, "we just went to the arcade."
"Well, as long as you had a good time," Mona said. "Why donít you come in here and meet the Connors?"
Allison came in the kitchen and pulled up a chair next to her mother. They were almost the same person, aside from age. Both women had shoulder-length red hair, but more than that, they both held themselves like gracious hostesses.
Allison was pretty, Greg decided, but only pretty enough to keep her from being ugly. She dressed like most sixteen year old girls in upstate New York, but she acted slightly different. Allison skittered around the house calmly, either unaware or not caring of Gregís heavy brown eyes following her. She seemed to get along with her parents, unlike most every other kid Greg knew. Without being asked, she began setting up blankets and pillows on the living room floor for the Connors. Greg realized the Morgans must be used to having a lot of company.
It was midnight before any of them went to bed. Greg fell asleep immediately; the hardness of the floor did nothing to deter him. As quickly as he had fallen asleep, Greg awoke, at seven in the morning. He was on his school schedule, which meant he woke up at 6:30 on weekdays and 7 on weekends, alarm clock or not. His parents were still asleep on the floor next to him; Greg walked quietly to the bathroom to avoid waking them. The bathroom door was locked.
"In a minute," Allison said through the door.
A minute later she opened the door, wearing a pair of white pajamas. "Good morning, Greg," she said, her hair wet from a shower. Everyone else in the house was asleep.
"Good morning," he said, then shuffled into the bathroom.
"Do you need to borrow my toothbrush?"
"No thanks. . .Iím all set."
"Ok," she said, "maybe later then."
She crossed the hallway and went into her room. Greg closed the bathroom door slowly behind him and locked it. He didnít know what to think of Allison.
By 10 a.m., everyone was awake and planning the day. It was decided that they would spend the afternoon at a nearby amusement park. The two families stuffed into Dave Morganís minivan and minutes later, before they were able to get on the turnpike, the skies opened with rain. The blue clouds crossed Ohio like a cruel joke; they had no choice but to turn around and go home.
There was not much to do in the house. The Morgans liked to socialize, Dave explained. It was their favorite indoor activity. They acted the part: Dave and Mona fed off of each otherís comments with practiced form; they could talk energetically about bug intestines, if thatís what their guests desired.
Allison was a gracious young lady. She served the Connors large glasses of what she called "sun tea." It was made, she said, by leaving a container of water and tea bags in the sun for a full day. It tasted, to Greg, like normal iced tea.
"So, Mark, tell me about New York." Dave said, "Do you go to the city much?"
"New York City? Itís a four hour drive from our house."
Mona spoke up: "Is it now. New York doesnít look that large on the map."
"The roads are different in the East," Gregís father said, gnawing on the nachos Allison had put out for him.
"Howís that?" Allison asked.
"We have mountains," Greg said. The conversation took a pause.
"I suppose thatís true," Dave said, leaning back in his chair.
The impression Greg got of the Morgans was this: the ideal Twilight Zone family. The were so perfect and happy, Greg thought a horrible lapse in the space-time continuum was just waiting to happen. At least in upstate N.Y. Greg had sports, video games, and parties. He could go down by the lake with his friends and smoke pot if he felt like it; Allison didnít seem to have anything to do on the weekend besides refine her social skills and entertain her parentís friends.
The afternoon dragged on with conversation after conversation, but by five oí clock the ground was dry and the sun made a brief appearance before setting into the flat horizon. The two mothers had become intent on making a great dinner, while the fathers continued talking and drinking in the living room. Allison and Greg sat at the kitchen bar and watched their mothers cook. "Why donít you take Greg outside and show him your new wheel, honey?" Mona offered, while putting her hair up in a bun.
"Thatís right," Allison said, hopping down from her stool.
Outside, behind the garage, was an assortment of unicycles. It was strange, almost unearthly, to see them in the center of Ohio. She handed Greg a short one with a soft seat, a starter unicycle, while she took out a large five-footer. "Weíll go down the street to practice," Allison said.
It was unseasonably warm for May, or else Ohioís seasons peaked earlier than in New York. They reached a vacant parking lot as the sky turned a deep orange. Greg watched Allison as she rode around the lot, egging him to give it a try. Her brown-red hair, cut off at the shoulders, covered her face when she turned hard and sharp to keep her balance. It was a jerky, repetitive motion, rolling around on one wheel. Just for the oddness of it, Greg thought, as he sat on his seat cautiously. Thatís why people do this.
He spurt forward on the wheel, went up, reached a balance, then came down running, the unicycle discarded behind him. He tried again, then twice more, before Allison came down to help him. It was the next logical step after learning to ride a bike, she said, pressing her hands on Gregís shoulders to balance him.
Allison was almost motherly, and much more beautiful, under the darkening Ohio sky. She held Greg steady and showed him how use pedaling and arm movement to keep his balance, but he continued to fall; he wasnít clenching the seat hard enough with his thighs. He almost had it a few times, rolling boldly away from Allison before faltering only a few feet away.
Ohio was calm at night. Looking at the panoramic view around him, Greg understood how people had once thought the world flat. He stood before the unicycle, preparing to launch himself on it again, when a large group entered the parking lot.
They all had unicycles. And it wasnít just kids; parents came over with unicycles of their own. "Chris!" Allison hollered, beckoning a short, blonde boy to come visit her. He rode over on his wheel; he must have been learning, too, because he wobbled crazily across the lot, though he didnít fall. "Youíve been practicing!" Allison said.
"Not really. I guess Iím just a fast learner."
"Chris, this is Greg. His familyís visiting until tomorrow."
"Whatís up," Greg said.
"Nice to meet you," Chris said, extending his hand. Greg shook it.
For another half-hour or so, Greg practiced on his own. Nearly everyone there was better them him, from the eight year olds to the parents. The parking lot looked like an ice skating rink, full of Sunday skaters. Occasionally, Allison would roll by to see how he was doing. By the end, he could roll 10 feet or so and had learned how to idle for a short period of time.
Allison and Greg left the parking lot together. The ground was in full darkness but the sky was a deep shade of blue. "How did you get involved with unicycles?" Greg asked, wondering crazily if it might be possible to get his friends to unicycle in New York.
"I saw an ad in a catalogue," she said, riding alongside Greg, who had decided to walk his unicycle back to the house. "I got good at it, then my friends tried it and bought their own."
"And then peopleís parents got involved?"
"Even my mom does it sometimes," Allison said, steadying herself by keeping a hand on Gregís head, "Itís more fun than Thighmaster, at least."
Allison wheeled tentatively onto the grass and behind the garage, where she finally hopped off. They laid down their unicycles and went inside through the back door.
Mona and their fathers were relaxing in the living room. "Itís about time," Mona said, getting up and going to the kitchen when they came into the house. "Where were you guys?"
"We went down to the lot and then everyone showed up," Allison said, while setting up the dinner table.
"Whoís everyone? The Wattersons?"
"No, of course not. Just the Dynes and some of the Randalls."
"Was Chris there?"
"Yes! You should see him now! Heís getting so good."
Mona leaned her head out of the kitchen doorway. "Supper, guys! Come on, before it gets cold."
Dave and Mark walked casually into the dining room, as if it was ritual they did every night. The two families sat down at the circular dinner table. Allison was on Gregís left and there was an empty chair to his right. "Whereís Mom?" Greg whispered to his father across the empty seat.
"She went to see your Uncle Phil for a while," Gregís father said. "Sheíll be back soon."
The night went on much like the first night did. The Morgans orchestrated a continuous thread of conversations that whittled away the time. It was 10:30 before Gregís mother returned. Outside, it was raining, again, and her glasses had gotten fogged over. Gregís father popped up from his chair and met her at the door. The Morgans continued their conversation about the Ohio job market.
"Besides the big industries, thereís a lot of money to be made in smaller businesses," Dave said, searching for an example.
"Like that new plastics place up in Mansfield," Mona offered.
"But what type of job should I go for in college?" Allison asked, adjusting her body on the couch. "How will I know what to study?"
"Thatís a good question," Dave said, pondering.
Gregís parents came in the living room and sat down on the couch. "You have to look ahead," Mona said to Allison, "otherwise you could end up with a useless degree."
"Excuse me," Gregís mother said almost immediately, getting up and going to the bathroom. After a moment of thought, Gregís father followed her.
The Connorsí flight was scheduled for 11 a.m., which meant they had to leave the Morganís house by nine. Gregís mother had returned with Mark a minute or two after retreating to the bathroom, and they fell right into the Morganís web of conversation. The two families talked for a few more hours before going to bed.
Greg was on the floor, staring at the ceiling in the dark. It had been so strange, his two days in Ohio. Everything was flat; he would miss the flatness back in New York. Greg pushed aside his thin blanket and went to the bathroom for a glass of water. When he opened the door, Allison was waiting there in her pajamas.
"Meet me here," she whispered in his ear, excited and devious, "at 7 a.m. tomorrow. I want to show you something."
Greg had no chance to reply; she slipped into her room and was gone.
Back on the living room floor, Greg imagined what Allison had in mind. He thought of her red hair sweeping over him, an image of her on her unicycle, of her serving tea. He faded in and out of sleep for a while, sometimes directing his thoughts to Allison or letting his dreams run their course.
He was awake, suddenly, and his mother was weeping behind him. He could hear his father whispering to her, comforting her as quietly as he could.
Her voice: "I am not a bad person. . .Iím not, Mark, tell me Iím not. . ."
"Shhhh. . .be quiet, honey," Gregís father mumbled faintly. "Itís ok. You wonít have to see him again."
"Tell me, Mark. . ."
"Shhhh. . .Weíll be home soon. . ."
His mother cried softly.
"Shhhh. . ." Gregís father whispered.
That night, Greg had his "flying" dream again.
As far he could remember, he had never wanted the ability to fly. In his dream, he would be flying, like Peter Pan, over his school and town. But he feared the ability; he would try desperately to reach the ground, but couldnít. As the dream went on, his body would float higher into the sky, leaving the atmosphere until he could see the Earth in its entirety; he would float further into space until he recognized nothing, until he couldnít distinguish the sun from millions of other stars.
Then his eyes would open calmly, as if heíd never been asleep. The white stucco ceiling in his room would stare down at him. His blanket, a crumpled heap on the floor, would be damp with sweat. Sometimes, his body would have new bruises or cuts from banging into his dresser.
At 7:00 a.m., Greg awoke from this dream calmly and fully. He snuck to the bathroom before anyone else was awakeóit reminded Greg of Christmas mornings as a kid. When he got to the door, Allison was there waiting. "Come on in my room," she said before Greg could make a sound.
He hadnít yet seen her bedroom. Besides being impeccably neat, there wasnít much out of the ordinary. If she was going to ask him to kiss her, Greg thought, he wasnít sure what to do. He still had morning breath, after all. But he wanted to kiss her.
"Hold on just a sec, I have something in here," Allison said, opening her closet. Greg didnít know what to expect. She pulled out an old leg cast covering in signatures and drawings. "You rode the unicycle, now you have to sign it," she said, smiling.
"This is yours?" Greg said, taken aback.
"Who else? I broke my leg on that starter wheel a few years back. See how little my leg used to be?"
As comparison, Allison put the old cast alongside her leg. The cast was several inches shorter. "Hereís a pen," Allison said, not waiting for a response. "Sign here. No waitóhere."
Greg wrote his name in small block letters then drew a picture.
"Whatís that?" Allison said, looking at the cast.
"Thoseíre mountains," Greg said. "Theyíre why I canít break my leg in New York."
After getting showered and dressed, there were only a few minutes left before they had to leave to catch the plane. Before the Connors left, Mark hugged Dave goodbye, and it was an awkward moment for everyone. It was doubtful they would ever see each other again. Greg gave Allison a hug as well; he even kissed her cheek before leaving.
But then it didnít matter; they were in the rental car on their way home to New York. It would be another full day of travel. "Mom," Greg asked, a few minutes into the trip, "will I ever get to meet Uncle Phil?"
They drove in silence for a moment. Mark wanted to say something for Alice, but he knew the question was hers to answer. Finally, she spoke up: "I hope you donít have to, honey."
It was all she would say. Greg took her answer silently, then the car became full of silence. They had six hours of travel before them; Mark reached over and turned on the radio. Alice, and Greg, too, was anxious to see the Catskills again.