Back to Milwaukee by Linda McMullen

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Ellen unclasps her American flag pin from her blazer, and tucks it into her purse; she glides into a bathroom stall where the pantsuit and heels come off, and she resumes her jeans, sneakers, and flannel. They’re a size too large, now. She hails a cab. En route she traces the sparkling silhouettes of the geodesic domes, takes in the faint dewy aroma of yeast from the Miller plant. The stadium rears up on the left – the new one, she calls it, though the children born alongside it have college degrees. But it had just opened its doors when she left, that first time.

The unreconstructed spur of the highway careens to the right, northward, away from the airport, her plane, and the tawny dust of an ancient civilization still clinging to the soles of the kitten heels in her carry-on. She had worn them at palaces and ministries, at balls and summits, in the smoke-filled rooms and in barbed-wire-edged camps. In them she’d skirted past the uniformed men with AK-47s. Greeted the camo-sporting teenagers opposite, toting identical weapons. Walked messages back and forth. Offers. She’d always rephrased the threats.

The taxi driver says, “So where’re you coming from?”

She tells him. The foreign syllables land like so many bubbles on his ear.

“Oh,” he says, the vowel long and nasal and achingly familiar. “Yah. I heard about that on the news.” The th sounds harden into ds. “Ya know, yer probly not usedta the weather here anymore. It’s goin’ to get cold tonight.” Co-weld.  “You might wanna get yourself a coat.” Co-wet.

“Thanks,” Ellen says. They’re rolling up the off-ramp, and suddenly they’re in a neighborhood, where the lovingly-remembered bungalows sit in dignity like stately ladies from another century. In the last days, she and the staff had cabled back to Washington to report the collapse in negotiations, while hunkering down, curling up under their desks, and awaiting extraction. Ellen had dozed between mortar rounds and dreamt she was nine again – sunburned, happy, and hungry – gleefully sprinting toward her house. 

Not away.  

From anything.

The maple and ash leaves dance in the September air, extend dainty taupe and tangerine greetings. Ellen notes the street numbers rising.  She fumbles for a Kleenex. And then the image in her mind’s eye suddenly corresponds to the block before her, except for an expanded garage here and a repainted front door there. The cab stops, she pays, she rushes to the door.

And her mother enfolds Ellen in her arms, and smiles, “Welcome home, Ambassador.”

“Not anymore, Mom.”

Over her mother’s shoulder she can see the edge of another familiar skyline, obscured by smoke and red chyrons. Her mother switches off the TV.

“Let me get you a sweater,” she says, and bustles off upstairs. Ellen sinks gratefully into the sofa, and her thousand-yard stare lands outside the front window. The kids across the street are coloring with sidewalk chalk and dancing, turning the soles of their shoes into rainbows.

Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, diplomat, and homesick Wisconsinite. Her short stories and the occasional poem have appeared in over ninety literary magazines. She received Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations in 2020. She may be found on Twitter: @LindaCMcMullen.

All opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not represent the Department of State or the U.S. government.

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