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“The shadow of your smile when you are gone.” Janelle continued singing the song. Her audience — a few sitting at tables, heads down, perhaps asleep; others walking the halls talking to themselves — appeared bored. One gentleman dressed in pajama bottoms and a Yankees T-shirt read from the bible and yelled “amen” in random outbursts. Janelle ignored them all and strummed her fingers up and down, her left hand playing the chords on a make-believe guitar.

For years, she sang the song a second time to the rhythm of a tango, making the context more hopeful, as if the absence was temporary. She didn’t today. It wasn’t appropriate. She paused and tried to remember why.

A chair alarm chimed when a member of her audience stood, bringing Janelle back to the present. She sang louder, felt her stomach tense up. She wanted to scream for everybody to hush and let her finish. Imbeciles.

After the song ended, she looked around. This wasn’t the type of place where she usually performed, she mused, not with the beige walls and bright lights on all the time. She was used to darker rooms with couples in various stages of intimacy snuggled in booths kissing and fondling each other, or sitting at cozy tables holding hands, or perched on barstools simply getting to know one another.

She’d lost track of how many sets she’d performed and how many times she’d played this song. By the reaction of her audience, most likely too many.

Janelle watched a tall black woman with short, blonde hair split on one side by a purple streak and dressed in a navy blue pantsuit come toward her, maybe to tell her she was singing too loud. Janelle lowered her head, willing the woman to walk past.

“Hi, Miss Janelle. That sure is a pretty song you’re singing for us. Just like always.”

“Thank you,” Janelle said. She stared at the white rectangle pinned to the woman’s blouse. The top line read “Allen Mental Health Spa.” The woman’s last name was Wilson. Janelle couldn’t pronounce the first name. Underneath that was CNA. She gazed into the woman’s eyes. “Do you think the others liked it?”

“I’m sure they did.” The woman helped Janelle stand. “It’s time to go to your room and check to see if you need a bathroom break. Shall we put your guitar on the piano?”

Janelle pulled her hands away. “No. Someone will steal it. I can’t leave it here by itself.”

“OK, Hon. How about if I carry it for you?”

After a pause, Janelle said, “I guess that’s OK.”

“Can you walk for me today, Sweetie?”

“Sure,” Janelle said and shuffled down the hall. She stopped and turned her head. “Do you think Carol will come see me today?”

“Oh, Honey. You still don’t remember the plane crash?”

“Plane crash?” Concern etched itself on Janelle’s face. “Is everyone OK?”

“I’m afraid not,” the woman replied. “But like the doctor said, it wasn’t your fault.”

“Not my fault?”

“That’s right. You got snowed in on your vacation.”

“I remember. Too much snow.” Janelle stared out the window as a robin landed on a grassy part of the enclosed courtyard. “I hope they found another flight attendant to help Carol out.”

“Yes, they did,” the aide said.

“Good. It’s too much work for one person.” Janelle watched the robin strut around and peck at the grass. He snatched a worm and held it in his beak. “She’s my best friend, you know. We’ve been roommates forever.” Janelle resumed walking and didn’t say any more. She closed her eyes, looked for a face, Carol’s face. The screams made it hard for her to concentrate. Just as Janelle was about to join in, the voices stopped. An eerie silence followed and then that song again. “The shadow of your smile when you are gone.”

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  1. With regards to this case of survivor guilt, I think the story would play out better if Janelle had been the only survivor of the plane crash rather than missing the doomed flight.

  2. A moving story, Jim. It’s the sort of piece I like, seeing the leaves of understanding opening up line by line. This is what flash is supposed tp be.

  3. Wow…

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