Secret Life - Kira Marie McCullough

            They call her Walker Woman. Every day, she pushes her walker around the property, an oddity among the other tenants, who are young and flushed red-tan by the sun. When she’s not bent over her walker, you’ll see that she is a tall and skinny figure with fine-spun hair that sticks out everywhere, never moving in the prairie winds. You might say it looks as crispy-stiff as cotton candy sawing up out of a paper cone on a cold day at the carnival.
            Walker Woman doesn’t wear make-up. She doesn’t care to slap blues and charcoals and pinks all over her face to satisfy your eyes; she doesn’t care if you can’t reconcile the harsh contrast between her bile-colored skin and pink-white hair.
            Her face and hands, the only parts poking out of her jacket, are yellow-brown from the sun and age. Her skin appears no softer than a piece of old leather, and her countenance no softer than the river rocks tumbled around the flower beds outside her apartment. Mostly, she is a study in grays. She wears a dingy windbreaker over a T-shirt and faded silver-white jeans that she hitches up with an old plastic belt. In the right kind of light, she looks ethereally cloudy, from the dark circles under her eyes to the dirty tennis shoes on her feet. But inside, she doesn’t feel gray.
            Most can’t see the little spark of breathless excitement that’s lit up in the middle of her chest, but she feels it, a stelliferous kind of invisible joy, when she looks at the stars.
            Most nights you’ll find her along the edge of the blacktop road, near the empty field with the For Sale sign in it. She’s leaning on her walker, but her body straightens like a rocket. She’s curving upwards, waiting. Her head falls back, and her dark eyes have turned an orchid-shade of lavender-blue, mirroring the bowl of planets and stars that’s shaken upside down and spilling out all over her.
            If the moon had eyes, it would see a face wrinkled by fifty years of smoking cigarettes — a face turned to pinches and creases and crevices. Like moon craters. If you happened to be driving by, you might see the flash of her lighter at the end of cupped hands. And your headlights would burst sudden-like on the silver, four-wheeled walker. Her grown children will tell you she refuses a motorized contraption. Too many moving parts, she says. Motors and knobs and things that might break when you’re in an inconvenient place, like along the side of the road at midnight. They’ll also tell you that for entertainment, instead of getting a curly permanent hairdo at the beauty shop or playing Bingo with other old people, she smokes cigarettes.
            In the early mornings, no matter the weather, she leaves her apartment and pushes her walker down the road leading to the convenience store at the corner. She picks up a pack of cigarettes, a box of Twinkies, and serves herself a Styrofoam cup of black coffee. No sugar, she says. It’s bad for you.
            The clerk and everybody know her by her real name. The delivery guy, Gary, is carrying in boxes of food and crates of sodas, stocking shelves with cans of SpaghettiOs and Vienna sausages and motor oil, when he sees her and says hi and waves.
            After breakfast and again around 3:00, she meets the couple in the van who park on the blacktop road. They call it their mobile smoking parlor because they live on a non-smoking property, and the management will evict you if they catch you with a cigarette in your mouth. The white van is outfitted with a radio and a decent air-conditioner that keeps them from sweating through the hot summers. When the weather is nice, they stand outside the van and smoke and watch the traffic on the Loop, which is parallel to the blacktop road and on the other side of the grassy field with the For Sale sign. They look at the livestock trucks carrying cattle for slaughter, and the mail trucks carrying packages, and the cars carrying people, and the school buses carrying kids. Walker Woman waves, hoping a child will smile and wave back. If they look up at all, they don’t wave; they stare slack-jawed, vacant-eyed at the gray woman with the cigarette and the walker.
            “Too many meds,” says the mobile-smoking parlor man one day.
            “Waddya mean?” asks Walker Woman.
            “They keep ‘em drugged up, those kids,” says the man. “They’s got sum kinder disease, or t’uther. That’s why they don’ smile at ya when yer wave.”
            Walker Woman tastes the sweet, musky tobacco in her throat and blows it out slowly. She squints at the yellow school bus. She stares at it as it rolls away down the Loop. Moves away on purpose, going somewhere, anywhere, but where she is standing. It disappears, and she doesn’t say it or put it in words, but she feels that ache of loneliness that reminds her that it’s disappearing like everything else in her life.
            The only thing she could count on were the stars. Although they moved, too, depending on the season or the sky. But they always came back around, bright and predictable and smiling. Her mother loved stars. She had wanted to name her daughter Star, but changed her mind at the last minute and put Stella on the birth certificate. Stella Walker. After all, she said, it means “star.”
            When she was old enough, Stella got to stay up all night with her mother in the backyard and watch the night sky. Her mother had said, “If you wish upon the right one, your wish will come true.”
            Stella couldn’t remember ever wishing to be old; she never had a dream of pushing a walker around a rundown apartment complex where nobody knows her real name, a noisy place where everybody calls her Walker Woman and casts pity-eyes at her. She thinks she must not have wished upon the right stars

            It is early Spring, and the night is cool. The school buses are parked, and only a few travelers race along the Loop. Walker Woman is alone. She stands by the edge of the road, looking at the Big Dipper as it points to the Spring constellation of Leo. She is tracking the shapes with her eyes, counting the stars, and her lips are moving.
            Even though her one-bedroom apartment is half a mile away, high up on the third floor overlooking the walls of the next apartment, she has the strange feeling that where she is right now — this is really home, somehow. Not the couch, as comfortably saggy as it is, or the swift goldfish in the bowl on the kitchen table, or the rabbit-ear TV crackling and fuzzy.  None of it matters. Even her cigarettes don’t matter. She hasn’t touched one since she began her vigil on this Spring night on the black top between the apartment complex and the convenience store, right at the edge of the field that sprouts weeds and grass intermingled.
            And she is gazing up until her neck throbs with the agony-stretch, and her eyes are watery as the sky. She is remembering her mother’s words: “Stars are beautiful enough to break your heart.” She feels something in her chest, or maybe it is her throat. A tight squeeze and then a release. There it is, again.
            She thinks, I don’t want to die with all the good wishes still inside of me. She lets go of the walker and lifts her hands slowly towards the luminous heavens. She takes short breaths. She smells the fresh-cut grass and dandelions and green weeds. She sees the blazing tail of a comet arcing towards the horizon, effulgent and bright, but to her eyes, hazy and dim.
            She exhales. Inhales. Feels the heavy fullness in her chest, rising and falling with every breath. She thinks of her mother and remembers the prayer her mother had taught her, “If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take….”
           
She squints at the brightest star. She wishes that her secret life would last forever.

Kira Marie McCullough, for almost four decades, has been writing professionally for various companies. But she considers her greatest achievement to be the three wonderful children that she and her husband have raised together.  For many happy years, Kira was a homeschooling mom with a freelance writing career. Now that her children have grown and flown on the wings of their own dreams, Kira has turned her attention to fiction writing. She started a local writer’s group, Thee Writerly House Fellowship, which offers workshops and critiques. She credits her writerly friends with saving many of her stories from the precipice of the editor’s trashcan. Kira believes in writing fiction that entertains and inspires. Her purpose is to nudge the reader to explore the transcendental virtues of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. These are the golden threads woven together through even the darkest tapestries, bringing hope and transformation. Find out more here: https://www.kira-marie-mccullough.com/