Listening to a Stranger’s Story

By Allison Backous Troy

I am boarding a plane to Detroit, and so is she, her thick coat falling onto my lap from the center aisle, the smell of smoke thick enough to make my head swim. She shoves it under her seat, her thick gray hair brushing my arm as she sits.

“I’m Dianne,” she tells me, wiping the hair from her eyes. “Boy, am I not looking forward to this flight.”

I agree with her, my voice surprisingly loud. Maybe it’s the migraine I’m fighting, or the nausea that accompanies me with every airborne flight I take. Maybe something inside me recognizes Dianne’s movements, the way she mumbles and laughs to herself, the instability of motion that somehow demands my response.

At first, I’m only asked to listen. Dianne tells me that she’s heading out to New York to visit a daughter and her newborn baby.

“She was married by a justice of the peace,” she says, “and I didn’t come because she told me it was no big deal. No big deal? It was my daughter, for Christ’s sake.”

The story, as I sensed it would, spills into me for the next two hours, its twists of plot too fluid, the words of this stranger too slippery to track without me asking “What did you say?” every few moments, my head throbbing as I try to catch how Dianne’s life, as she lays it before me, holds together.

What it sounds like is this: Her husband, a composer of pop music, currently sleeps in a nursing home in upstate New York, his legs too damaged from a car accident for him to move freely through his life. He is ten years younger than Dianne, which didn’t keep her from marrying him, once she heard his music.

“Beautiful,” she says. “It was all beautiful. He is a genius, and those pirates stole everything he ever wrote.”

The “pirates” are superstars: Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Santana, Quincy Jones. Music moguls who somehow caught a line of this man’s music and took the credit.

There was no written music, only the genius of her husband’s fingers, and the cassette tapes, which held the only original recordings and were destroyed in the car accident that smashed her husband’s legs, leaving them more penniless than they were before.

“He never cared about those recordings,” Dianne says, cupping her hand for a pile of airline pretzels. “He sold me the rights for a pack of gum and a yoyo. But I have it all written in my book, all the facts, so we can get back what’s been stolen. All of it.”

The only problem, according to Dianne, is that she made the same mistake as her husband—the only copy of this book, her memoir, is currently in the hands of David Letterman, whom she hopes to see in New York, if he’ll return her call.

“I keep trying,” she says, sifting the pretzels in her palm, “but no answer. He probably thinks I’m crazy. Don’t you agree?”

The dull blow of that question cuts straight to the bone of my childhood, my mother and father each silhouetted against the screen door of our kitchen, watching clouds, relaying the logic behind their choices in a way that made me their confessor, the medium through which sin was pardoned.

Don’t you agree, Allison, that we deserve a better life? Don’t you agree that, if you had told us how to love each other, we wouldn’t be in this mess right now?

Those are the questions I heard, even if my parents didn’t ask them directly. But Dianne looks straight at me, and I cannot help but keep listening, her lips lined with beads of spit, her blue eyes milky beneath her thick bangs.

“You know, he was just as much a pirate as those musicians were,” she says. “He used to tell me that God was punishing me for not believing in him, even though I do believe. But how do you love someone who fools you twice? Don’t you agree that it’s impossible to do?”

Before I can say anything, Dianne suddenly starts hacking, a pretzel lodged in her throat, her body rocking under the demand for air. I wonder if I should do the Heimlich. I stare at her heaving frame and am unable to move, her need paralyzing me beyond the ability to act, or judge, or move.

But I somehow catch the words of the Jesus Prayer—Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner—strumming in my ears, the prayer itself pouring through me, for her, and a moment later, she looks up at me, gasping, smiling as she reaches for her Coke.

“Good thing I got my breath back!” she says, and I nod my head, a small agreement with an essential fact:

Good thing, Dianne, that you have breath, that there is life, the chance to love in spite of what is taken from us.

“I won’t forget this,” she tells me. “I won’t forget this conversation.” She settles into her coat, her face at the window, the clouds forging their own hills and valleys in the air around us.

She turns to me smiling. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she says, her hands twitching in her lap. “Isn’t it amazing, to see what we get to see?”

Note: This post was originally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.