It all began in the ground.
Sandra picked the glass shards from the kitchen floor and tried to cradle them softly in her other palm. She emptied what had been part of a set of two thin vases into the trash and blew the last slivers from her shaking hand. The glass vase had been the only vulnerable thing, there at the edge of the kitchen counter. She’d heard it smash from outside, where she’d run at the first sensation that the ground had begun to move. The other vase had been packed away just moments before the quake, in the safety of newspaper and cardboard, along with nearly everything she and her husband had ever owned.
She could hear Guy upstairs in the loft, tuning the radio to the local Mammoth Lakes station, KMMT, waiting for the numbers.
“What was it?” she asked.
“They’re still waiting for it to come in,” Guy said, “but it’s going to be close.”
Until she married Guy and retired with him to the eastern folds of the Sierra Nevadas, Sandra’s forty-nine years had been free from earthquakes. She had grown accustomed to a life that seemed to float. Her expectations had drifted to far horizons which, with time, seemed to disappear into dusky impossibilities. She’d raised a son, Jason, alone, had managed to make a living at an airplane assembly plant in Seattle, and had resigned herself to one of those simple lives which she had thought were people’s lowest common denominator of contentment.
A thin line of blood emerged in her palm. Sandra turned on the tap and held her hands under the biting cold of mountain water. Here, in this house, she’d found something she took for the happiness which had alluded her for nearly fifty years. The horizons which had held dim views of pleasure and joy revealed her surprising closeness, so that a glance at the mountains through the windows of their home seemed an impossible luxury that she’d begun to believe, most luxuriously of all, was hers to keep.
In ten years, the timbered house had become the storeroom of weekend sojourns to fairs, swap meets and antique shops. No worries had prevented her from turning a house into a home. The ceramic cowboys with petrified lassos, the buffalo head and even the chow triangle seemed natural denizens of an eternal home. A feeling close to history settled on her life, her relationship, and the house in which she slept, ate and loved. Comfortable routine woke her, moved her, let her lie in the low Sierra sun. In the winter, the ski lifts were only five minutes by car, and the lifts then took them to the top of the serrated world.
Not until then did the upset of geologic shifting enter her life. The past summer had been the worst. Hot, with the mornings sweating dew and the ground shivering like a feverish child. At night she dreamed of lava.
At first, the quakes had caused little more stir than a creak on the stairs, with months between geologic footfalls. She’d been able to forget their presence. But since summer, the earth moved daily, compounding the earlier innocuousness into a worry that could not find release in light-hearted jokes about mountain life. Nothing was stable. Townsfolk were jittery, property values showed five and six digit cracks, and new construction seemed unable to take a firm hold. And in all this, Sandra discovered that never before had she been so comfortable in the house, with her husband and the preciousness of still moments. Guy scoffed at the idea of moving. Between the two of them, she’d seen what had formed in town, a rift between the concerned and the unconcerned. As long as there formed no middle ground, there seemed no agreement on danger, and therefore the shaking seemed both dangerous and common place.
“Finally,” Guy said from the loft.
Sandra pulled her hands from the faucet’s stream of water. Her fingers were numb with cold, but the blood had stopped. “What, did you win?”
“3.0,” Guy said. “Exactly.”
Guy and his friends in town had an earthquake pool. No one had taken the pot in the past four quakes and the last she’d heard, it was up to nearly four-hundred dollars. Since the new year, Guy had been betting a reading of 3.0 on the Richter scale.
“You should break even with that,” Sandra said, looking up at the loft where he had his work room. There’d been a dozen quakes and a dozen twenty dollar bills going into other betters’ pockets.
“Just about,” Guy said. “I knew it was a three-zero. I could feel it was right there.”
She could see the silhouette of his movements on the cathedral ceiling, the shadow of his chest as large as the stuffed buffalo head that hung under the apex of the roof. His voice shook slightly from happiness.
“Congratulations,” Sandra said. “Your number was bound to come up.” At the start of the quake, running outside, she had not thought of scale, of numbers. But she was happy for him. At this time, with the possibility of evacuation hanging over them, she took hold of every piece of good news.
Sandra turned on the coffee maker, then went about emptying the dishwasher. Through the window, she could see that the western horizon was blackening. With warm plates in hand, she began restocking the nearly bare cupboards with place settings for two. The good decade old china, crystal, along with the years’ accumulation of clothes, books, and failed hobbies—and the more sizable results of successful ones—lay packed with old news in dozens of boxes on both floors of the house.
Pulling out the dishwasher’s second tier, Sandra began placing the equally sparse silverware into the drawers. In the background, she could hear Guy working up in the loft. He’d changed the radio station. The volume was low enough that she could discern him humming the melody over the snip of cutting shears and the hammering of penny nails. Guy was still at the alchemy. Now retired, he made scenes of the Old West from beer cans.
As the gurgle of water became drops of coffee, Sandra climbed the carpeted stairs to the loft, passing the reverse shadows on the wall left by packed away picture frames. The air was hot and stale, but Guy was whistling.
“Coffee will be done soon,” she said.
“Okay,” Guy said, not turning around. “Let me finish cutting this one here.”
She watched him pry open an empty beer can with shears, then flatten the aluminum and cut the sheet into the shape of a wagon wheel. He gathered the wheel with other forms and stood with them in hand.
“Going to finish the bank by tonight,” he said, smiling. “Now that I have something to go in it.”
As he walked toward her, Sandra watched his young looking face and the shallow eyes, big and placid. As he passed she could see the depth of his chest and stomach, and only as he stepped slowly down the stairs to the kitchen did he seem to show the nearly twenty year advance on her own age. His bad leg made him limp.
In the kitchen, Sandra pulled two mugs from the cupboard and set them on the counter, far from the edge. “I saw the Piedmont’s truck pull up,” she said. The Piedmonts were their neighbors. Sandra had been using the telescope on her porch to spy on them. Today, she feared she had glimpsed the future. Through her telescope she had seen Mrs. Piedmont weeping.
Guy turned the aluminum pieces of a miniature western town in his hands. “Who are they using?” he asked. “Bekins?”
“The truck looked like one from the North American Line.” She could still picture the giant letters passing through her view.
“Well, at least they’re going to stay in the hemisphere,” he said. “Kinda have to, with all their stuff. We could manage in a U-haul, I imagine. If we had to.”
Guy held the aluminum cut-outs in tongs and passed them through the stove flame in quick slices which removed the colors and brand names. What remained was a rich texture of golden walls, golden wheels, golden figures for the menagerie that inhabited the center of the coffee table. The pieces made up a loose reconstruction of Bodie, the ghost town an hour or so north off Interstate 395. For months now, the model had grown with additions passed through the range’s transmuting flame. For all her packing in the face of possible evacuation, he was still optimistic enough to be building. The methodical way in which he worked made Sandra feel as though they wouldn’t have to move, that he must have an inkling that things would turn out all right.
“We’ll need someone to move the heavy things. The refrigerator,” Sandra said, hearing the sound of the mover’s truck tucked within the breeze.
“Do we need to take the refrigerator? Isn’t there one down in Julian?”
Sandra thought of their fall-back location, the town of Julian, in the mountains east of San Diego. It had been her parent’s home, and she had lived there long ago. Guy’s son Fargas rented it from them now. “It’s probably Fargas’ refrigerator,” she said.
Guy nodded as he worked. He was examining the hue of a metallic wagon wheel in his tongs, which he again passed through the blue stove flame. “Let’s wait and see,” he said. “Let’s just wait.”
The front door downstairs was open and a wind drafted the house, barging through the open door, whistling softly up the stairs like good news, but then tripping out and off the balcony. Day and night, she kept the windows open to vent the invisible product of the magma below them, the gas that was killing the trees from the roots, working itself into the fissures of the house and the routine of her life. This was almost worse than the quakes—at least she felt and heard them and knew each trembler would pass. But the gas, perhaps only rising in slow, insignificant gasps, did not allow her to lower her guard. The gas could be swirling on the ceilings or it could be a mile below. Her ignorance made her nerves tingle for some definite knowledge, especially when she tried to sleep, often wondering if the air she breathed was flammable or an asphyxiant. Whenever she brought up these worries, Guy brushed them off. He would turn on his side in bed, his hands weak and bent at the wrists like dog paws, the air again tumbling in with rich turbulent snores.
Sandra picked up the mugs and coffee pot. The draft continued to sweep through the house. “Let’s sit outside.”
“I’ll be there in a minute,” Guy said.
Sandra set the mugs and coffee on the small balcony table. The day was fading quickly, now. She looked at the telescope, but it would be at least fifteen minutes before the western horizon dimmed enough for the speckled vertebrae of the Milky Way to arch into view. Astronomy, especially lately, had been a hobby of hers. The telescope had been a gift from Guy to her son many years back. She and Jason had been living in Julian at the time. She had taken Jason to Mt. Palomar and taught him where to look and what to see, even when she knew he no longer had—or perhaps never held—an interest.
She had spent many summer nights on the balcony. While she would scope out the night sky, Guy played the shortwave and kept to the miniature world held in his fingers. While she breathed crisp, eye-watering wind, he took in the warm leaden air, one nostril sometimes whistling for a minute after he climbed the stairs to his work area in the loft.
From the balcony, Sandra had a frontier view of forest and jutting rock. Tucked on the edges of Mammoth Lakes’ Old Town, the house had been Guy’s second home in a first marriage, but the equation had tripped, his excess domicile becoming his first home in a second union. Terms of his divorce had given a U-haul custody of half the furniture. Until Sandra moved in and married him, the house sat half-empty between the seasonally unoccupied second home of a recalcitrant San Francisco lawyer on one side and, across the meadow, the Piedmonts. Just the other week, the Piedmonts had received evacuation papers. The police (who’d been notified by the USGS geologists mulling over data collected by graduate students from instruments imbedded in Sandra and Guy’s lawn) had warned them that they would need to evacuate if the levels of gas collecting about the prods and sniffers increased. Sometimes, in the quiet nights when looking at stars, Sandra heard the devices give out infrequent beeps, like a digital watch signaling the passing of an hour on some strange system of heavenly time. She tried not to listen.
Sandra took a quick glimpse through the telescope. She could see a moving van between the blur of trees. She tried not to think of the carbon dioxide welling up from deep underground, tried to ignore the rumors she had read and the speculation her pessimistic ears had heard: that the mountain silently gassed twelve hundred metric tons of CO2 per day, the same amount as Kilauea, thousands of miles off in the Pacific. In Hawaii, this danger was an obvious, blackened beast, but here in Mammoth Lakes, the mountain seemed to disassociate itself from any danger greater than a skier’s sprained ankle or a hiker’s sunburn.
She could smell the acrid interior fumes of Guy’s alchemy that had settled down from the loft into the stream of draft. The odor was harsh, but at least detectable, and she wished the underground gas had a similar scent so she’d know when it was safe to breathe deeply.
“That was the last beer can,” Guy said, tramping outside. “Buy more for this weekend. I’ll have to make sure Jason and I drink enough to finish the roof and the side wall of the saloon building.”
“It’s on the list,” Sandra said, looking at the landscape and drawing the view into her, in case it would soon be gone. She could see the last of the sun creep up Crystal Crag, far off above Lake George, Lake Mary and Twin Lakes. And luckless Horseshoe Lake, where the trees were dying. The sun-bronzed outcropping of Crystal Crag was like a near-spent torch, and as she watched, it quickly snuffed out, smokeless. She heard Guy sigh and the sigh retracted her sense of place to the limits of the balcony, the wood table and chairs and the steaming coffee. She watched Guy tip his mug against the bulk of his stomach to look inside. Behind him stood the remains of last year’s unused firewood, stacked in a fraction of a cord. Soon they would need more, or none at all. In town, some folks wanted to harvest the timber in the dead areas, there around Horseshoe Lake and a half dozen other spots around the mountain where two-hundred year old forests were dead or dying from the roots up, and where even grass hardly grew.
Sandra looked through the telescope again. She could make out a tire from her neighbor’s moving van, partly obscured by passing legs. She adjusted the telescope to see the house, but her view skipped to tree tops, then to dark brush, then finally to the house again. She nudged the scope and finally saw the garage. Two workmen were moving past her vision, carrying out belongings. Half-hidden by the darkness of the garage stood Mrs. Piedmont, holding her hands over her nose and mouth, her eyes still shiny. Crying gas.
The lift on the back of the Piedmont’s moving van gave out a grumble that carried across the meadow. She looked at Guy and he looked back at her. Over the past few years, long pauses had lodged in their conversations. She did not know if it was because they knew each other so well, or had nothing to say.
“Any sugar?” Guy asked.
Sandra reached into her pocket and placed a pack of sugar on the redwood slats.
“When I’m in Seattle, I’m going to buy some real coffee. The bean. I’ll bring back a couple bags.”
“Do that,” Sandra said. “See if they have the Hawaiian kind.”
“Aloha,” Guy said.
She watched him pour some of his coffee onto his saucer and bring the saucer to his lips where he blew ripples across the black pool. When she had first seen his method of drinking coffee, she’d thought it was a superstitious act, something to do with reading coffee grounds. But her imagination had applied exotic suspicions to nothing but the mundane act of cooling coffee. Guy poured several saucerfulls and drank them down in this way, then took a large gulp of coffee straight from the mug before putting it down.
All week, Guy had been talking on and off about the trip to Washington State on investment matters. He had retirement money from his engineering years tied up in land, and he was waiting for the flood from Hong Kong to come across, people needing buildings, needing land. He owned a big spread with twelve hundred other investors, and he was counting on dog racing to turn the cash flow around. He’d been in Asia on business trips and said they were nuts about racing. The land was just the right size for a regulation track, stands and a parking lot. He had drawn a sketch on graph paper.
More than the idea of having the house to herself for a week, Sandra’s thoughts turned to his return. He’d bring back her son Jason and his wife Maris, both of whom worked an Alaskan cruise ship. Their ship was finishing the summer run and they’d promised to follow Guy back down for a couple weeks of vacation, at least a few days of which they’d be in Mammoth. She had not seen her son since before the start of the earthquake swarms and missed him. The idea that Jason was married and working in the emptiness of a new state filled her with age and pride, feelings which came in individual waves but could not meet together in any simultaneous sense. She still felt too young.
“Where are you going to meet Jason and Maris?” she asked.
“Don’t know,” Guy said, then took a sip. “He’s going to call me when I’m up there. Ship to shore telephones, probably.”
“He turned out all right, didn’t he?”
“Fine,” Guy said, looking out over the balcony.
She followed his gaze, trying to see through the glare of the setting sun. Across the meadow and between the trees, she could see the side of the moving van and the faint trace of men in same-colored T-shirts moving from the house and to the van. Without the aid of the telescope, the movements seemed emotionless, like the sight of an animal being killed from afar—a rabbit giving itself up for the coyote’s jaws, a cow toppling from the heat. A quiet, natural sort of terror. Sandra took a tentative sip of her coffee. Breaking the silence, she heard the mechanical bucking of the back lift carrying some enormous shape of furniture or appliance from the ground up to the height of the van. She looked away.
Above the trees, the sun seemed to form a meniscus where it met the silhouette of Mammoth Mountain. The pumice-manged volcano stopped the town from spreading west, trapping it in a kind of cul-de-sac of geography. She could see the deep skirt of pine along the mountain range’s base, the copper shoulder of a hill, and the harsher teeth toward Twin Lakes surrounding the basin of small waters, above which Crystal Crag had begun fading into the darkening purple horizon. Sunsets did not give Sandra the comfort of midday rays. The night would spill ink on the landscape so that even the sky seemed to glow in comparison to the deep darkness of the land. Also, the winds would come. Cool, then cold as they dropped down the basin of small lakes, filtered through the forest, and gained speed across the newly cleared land that was now a nine hole green. Or some nights the winds would sink along the ground, swirling with mist from the stream that ran in front of their home, mist that hushed the waters and brought a silence that hurt her ears.
Guy shifted in his chair and stretched his leg out between two slats of wood that made up the balcony.
“Pain?” Sandra asked.
“A little,” Guy answered. His bad leg dangled in the air.
Once, when he was away, Sandra had sat as Guy sat now, just to see what it felt like. Ironically, her leg grew heavy with blood, heavy even though it was suspended in the air. She imagined this somehow lessened the pain in Guy’s leg. On days that began from the bed with a groan of recognized pain, Sandra would later find Guy dangling both legs off the balcony. He appeared, in these moments, like a lonesome boy left on the dock of a summer camp. She would bring him breakfast and say she loved him, all the while wondering what that meant in the presence of discomfort or pain.
“Does it help?”
Guy looked at his leg, then at the newly visible stars. “Circulation is what keeps the pain away.” He began swinging his leg back and forth. “Circulation.”
Sandra leaned back and looked up at the emerging stars. She still had to envision the speckled spine of the galaxy masked by the afterglow of the sunset. A few evenings a week during the summer, she looked up at the stars, occasionally at a planet or two. The telescope wasn’t powerful enough to do much more than intensify the blur which was Mars, or throw a sash around Saturn. The moon, though, came through crisp and cold, skeletal, like morning frost on the bones of a marmot she’d once come across while hiking above Crystal Crag. The moon seemed alone among the colored stars, like the bones around the wildflowers of Western Monkshood, Fireweed, Crimson Columbine and Pearly Everlasting. She identified the flowers from a field guide, but there seemed something pointless to knowing the names of the stars. Her knowledge of the sky had a limited vocabulary, as she wished. As though only the things she could touch, smell, or pluck should be given identity. Naming the infinite, much less remembering, seemed a meaningless way to watch the sky. Her favorite poem was Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” It was beauty which drew her to the scope, the lace of shadow and light on the rims of craters, the infinite number of stars that shined, so many that even where her own eye found blackness, she knew that greater telescopes had come to the endless presence of heavenly bodies. And every hour or so, if she rested her eyes and let them tack lazily across the sky, she’d see the sudden intersection of meteors with the air above Mammoth Lakes, wisps of tracery burning and spending themselves in the corners of her eyes.
There were a few more stars visible, now. Guy grabbed the telescope by one leg of the tripod and dragged it close enough that he could look through it without getting up. He aimed it at Mammoth Mountain.
Sandra felt the balcony gently rise, like an old house in an evening wind. The aspens between the house and stream swayed, but the air was still. She stood, put one hand on the edge of the redwood table, and tried to discern any movement over the pulses of her heart. Then, the earthquake came again, the invisible wave of energy showing itself as it troughed through the pot of coffee.
Despite the undesired conditioning, she still could not suppress a feeling of animal panic. She was afraid of the quake itself, not of injury or worse, only afraid—pure and unconnected to future implications. Guy held his mug off the table.
Stillness. She sat again. There were quakes so often that she and Guy no longer mentioned the small ones, almost as if to make them nonexistent. Sandra hoped to catch Guy’s eye before he caught hers.
“More coffee?” he asked, holding the pot above her mug which sat in a puddle of wet steaming wood.
She lifted the mug, felt her wrist shake, and put the mug back down. Guy poured.
“Three?” she asked, judging the Richter.
“Nah. Two and a half, tops,” he said. “If we were walking, we wouldn’t have felt it.”
The numbers were easy to talk about and gave a kind of clinical peace to the event. Worse, though, was the suspicion that every rattle was only a foreshock. With every new quake came the stress of losing the basic faith that what she saw around her she would see every day. She looked at the sky where the idea of infinity without permanent presence seemed contradictory.
“Look. They didn’t even stop the gondolas,” Guy said.
Sandra moved from her side of the table and dragged her chair beside his. In the scope’s circular sight tiny gondolas moved on nearly invisible web-like strands to the top of the mountain. At one point on the ascent, the last of the sun refracted through a gondola’s window, the flash returning through the windows of another in tow. The sight of the steady movement of gondolas gradually slowed her heart and brought a stillness over the evening. She was here in the safety of a timber frame house, not dangling on a thread for a view of the Sierras or a last run down the Kamikaze trail where she could see the dust of mountain bikers mixing with the greater dust stirred up by the small quake. Slowly, the feeling of separation from routine, home, and fearless breathing subsided and that false steadiness returned, filling her up and warming her. She finished her coffee, and began massaging Guy’s bad leg. A slow wind came down across the stream and shimmered the aspen leaves like endlessly falling confetti.
She saw the Piedmont’s retriever tearing through the meadow, and not far behind, Mr. Piedmont with a slack leash in hand. He walked the course of the trail, coming closer where it looped past their house.
“We’re leaving just in time, it seems,” Mr. Piedmont said, when he was close enough to shout. As he approached the balcony from below, his body appeared laughably compact.
Guy leaned over the balcony railing. “Better hurry.”
“You’re telling me,” Mr. Piedmont echoed.
Sandra could not help feeling simultaneously sad and envious in the face of her neighbor’s departure. “You must be tired from packing,” Sandra said. “Want to come up for some coffee?”
“No thanks. I would, but I need to help Dora with the clothes. I’m just letting the dog mark the territory for the last time.”
“Okay,” Sandra said. “We’ll stop by tomorrow before you go.”
On the dining room table she could see the large bottle of cognac she’d bought as a going away present. An unfastened red bow sat beside it. She looked back over the balcony and could see Mr. Piedmont’s creme-colored jacket, but as he moved away, the night stained it invisible. She saw the white of his palm flashing a wave, and then he rejoined the sound of his dog roaming in the new night before him.
Sandra moved closer to Guy and resumed massaging his leg. The light wind rasped against the screen door as it worked its way through the mesh and inside, filling the curtains, then emptying them slowly, then filling them again, as if drawing patient breath for a long night. She found his hand and held it.
Plying the water of the Inside Passage, the cruise ship Arctic Isle made its final summer run down to Vancouver. Deep in the ship, the kitchen was a humid jungle of sound and smells. The evening’s dishes of salmon, reindeer, potatoes and greens steamed into the air. The fragrance mixed in a dusty glow under the rows of fluorescent lights, the mist inhaled and exhaled on the tumbling shouts of English and Tagalog. There were few women in the kitchen. They swung in and out through the dining room doors, serving dishes and returning with china heaped with translucent bones and the buttered glitter of fish skin. This, and the sprigs of parsley and confusion of used silverware were all that returned. The air that snuck in was paddled back out.
For Maris, being in the kitchen once felt like the invasion of a men’s locker room. Even after having worked there for a few years, she didn’t feel completely at ease. In some respects, she had no business among the ovens and stoves, the flash of knives and the dry rain of spices from quick hands. She didn’t even work with food. Only ice.
Behind the walk-in freezer’s doors and insulated from the cacophony of crackling oil and the rubber-soled bustle of cooks and waiters, Maris and Jason slid blocks of ice. In the cold solitude, they heaved the inferior ice out of the way with giant tongs and lugged perfect rectangles out on ramps Maris had fashioned from the wood of broken palettes. The muscles between her shoulder blades ached from the effort, as though an acupuncture needle had been unknowingly left at a pressure point. She ran her damp cold fingers across her skin but found only a familiar mole.
“Do you need another block?” Jason asked, one black-shoed foot resting atop the last of the good ice.
Maris looked on the floor in front of her at the two newly-dragged blocks. “Maybe one more.”
She’d been asked to carve a facsimile of Botticelli’s Venus for the second dinner serving. She’d hoped the two swans would last through both dinners, but when she went out to the tables, she saw that both necks had softened and broken off, lying at the birds’ breasts like question marks. Tonight, the air was too warm. The passengers in their tuxes and gowns, dressed for the formal dinner, gave off heat like one-hundred watt light bulbs.
“This block looks good,” Jason said, gripping one awkwardly with the tongs.
“Here,” Maris said, taking the cold steel in her hands and working the block out over the wooden ramp. “You’re not dressed for this work,” she added. Her legs were tight from the weight and felt like tree stumps.
The padded shoulders of Jason’s tux shrugged in weak opposition.
“Don’t you have to be serving the second dinner?” she asked. He was supposed to be rotating through the doors in his jacket and bow tie, with dishes in hand. Fish bones and all that, Maris thought.
Jason looked at his watch, wiped the crystal with the sleeve of his other arm and read it again in the dim light. “Soon,” he said, sitting down on a crate of vegetables.
Maris poured a few drops of water on top of the first block and topped it with another. She perspired in her parka. All this work she managed by herself, every day. Jason shook in his tux and breathed blue steam on his hands. It was a mistake for him to sit down and let the cold seep in, but she said nothing.
Today was, according to the orbit of the earth, their anniversary. The ceremony had been two years ago in Anchorage as the ship took on new supplies and another crowd of gray-haired passengers. There was no Indian summer that year. An early snow fell like rice, she remembered. She was twenty-nine now and he was twenty-four. These were numbers she often repeated to herself.
This anniversary morning, Jason had brought her breakfast in bed, but that was nothing more than a short wait in line and an elevator ride back to their cabin. After all, she ate this food every morning. Every day she watched the best lines of the New World glide past. Spring and summer in Alaska, then the coast down to Panama City, through the bottle-necked canal and—picking up the seasonal steel drum band—out into the waters of the Caribbean for fall and winter, the beaches thick with debris from a year of bad storms. In that clime, she had to carve in miniature, and deeper so the details would show. The warm wind peeled away epidermis after epidermis of ice, but left no puddle. The frozen palms, ships, and crystalline moons evaporated. Season after season she made this migration from one paradise to another. But not one carving remained, except in her memories.
She knew that the first couple had left the garden for good reasons, and these were boredom, discontentment—and more tempting than any fruit—fantasies of other gardens. The planet had begun to feel a tiny place to Maris, so small and easy a thing to circumnavigate. She wanted to be surprised by unheard of countries where no friend of hers had ever set foot or licked the gummed backing of the postage stamps. She’d played with the idea of taking scuba lessons, but as long as she worked aboard the ship, she knew her submarine limit would be the pool’s deep end.
She still had her own suitcase, clothes like the memories of mountains and water: blue, black, green, passionless white. She didn’t know why this life groaned in her heart with discomfort. Boredom was an effect, not a reason. She had never known marriage on dry land—how many couples could claim that? A pirate-gone-family man, a ship’s captain, newlyweds in drowned yachts. For a couple years, their time had been a honeymoon-occupation, but nothing had changed. She still envied others’ contentment, or the unperturbed ignorance which passed for the same thing.
As a child, she’d been inquisitive, hopping backyard fences to experience lives that cultivated vegetable gardens or pools or weeds, tall and sprouting, like wheat. She’d stumbled upon arguments, parties, and love-making. But mostly on emptiness. As a young girl, though, the loneliness hadn’t occurred to her. Instead, every new glimpse into the lives of others, every new situation and botanical arrangement widened her image of the world while also making it simultaneously familiar. She was where she tread; movement made her.
Marriage and life aboard a migratory ship had seemed to afford a fair, wide-flung world. Instead, she had come to know the confines of their cabin more than any opportunity for knowing the land. She yearned for a different kind of travel now, to plummet into strange conversation and stranger vistas, for her present self to evaporate without a tear and the world to expand into the unknowable size of Jupiter.
She had taken to wondering if this would ever happen. To rid herself of lethargy, she’d recently taken up jogging around the track. But the sight of so many old passengers made her feel as though she were mocking them. She could do a lap past the same windows and still see the same people walking to a distant room. And then there was the boredom of running with the ship southward, only to pull around and jog back the way she’d come, in endless circles. Some evenings, she watched the travel channel on the ship’s TV, tabulating the cost of flights and apartments at off-season rates until she fell into sleep.
They had little savings they could touch. Jason had invested their money back when the ship’s life teemed with possibilities. The hours of work lay buried in paperwork which deeded them a share in an empty Seattle real estate lot. Alone, though, she had a few thousand stowed away from before her marriage. This could be enough to leave for solid ground. And yet she wasn’t sure, after all the miles she’d traveled, where she could go. The isolation of the past years had broken off old friendships; to restart them would feel like defeat.
Jason rubbed his hands together, as though to brush off sawdust. There was something like sawdust in the corner of the freezer. Countless splinters from palettes, cardboard, and shredded labels ground together underfoot, adding a barn odor to the freezer, as though they were actually on an ark.
Maris shook the top block. Frozen. Throughout the ice, the air had bubbled out slowly as the water had frozen, leaving a purity like Danish glass. She felt a dissatisfaction that the man she had married, the relationship which she had never tested on land, was cloudy and imperfect. In the poor light inside the freezer, Jason’s white shirt was a dull gray. His steaming breath concealed his face. And although she was in the freezer to carve, she reached up to the necktie below the featureless face and pulled him toward her. She was delighted, as the face cut through the cloud of breath, to see his discomfort.
“We have ten minutes,” Maris said, stretching out completely, the ice dry and burning where it gripped through her pants and in places through the thin parka. She tried to bring him down on her, but he leaned back and pulled her up, his face reddening above the necktie. In the background, the freezer’s motor kicked in.
“I have to be out for the second serving,” Jason said, unhooking her hands.
She felt aggravated by his taciturn answer, and no longer felt a smile on her face, even a malicious one. She sighed and said his name. “You’re so safe,” she added. She picked up her bag of tools and began working on the ice.
“Don’t say that. That’s not true.”
She walked around the block and looked through it at the slippery proportions of her husband. Now large beyond recognition, now a narrow stalk.
“What are we going to do?”
“Anything,” she said, tracing a random groove on the surface of the ice with a corner of a chisel. “I don’t want to end up like all those people up there, all wrinkled and old.”
“Is this the age blues?”
“Ah, then it’s the place blues.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“There,” Jason said, pointing at her through the ice. “It’s in your voice.”
“Would you love me if I never want to settle down? That I don’t want kids. Ever?”
“We’ve been through this before.”
“That you’ll never have kids?”
“You’re just saying that now.”
“No, I mean it.”
“Of course you do,” Jason said, straightening his vest and jacket. “Whenever you get this way, you believe what you’re thinking. Where would we be if we didn’t believe what we though?”
“We need to get off this ship,” Maris said.
“There’s Mammoth in a week. See, we’re going someplace.” Jason’s head quivered and she saw him rub his hands together.
“That’s not what I had in mind.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Someplace new, absolutely unheard of.”
What was she to tell him? That when the ship docked in Vancouver, she did not want to accompany him to Mammoth Lakes for their vacation? That nearly unknown in-laws did not satisfy her need for discovery? Deep down, she also felt that migrating with the ship to the Caribbean for the winter season would be a kind of procrastination.
She grabbed his arm. “Let’s learn a new language.”
“What for?” he said, reaching and laying a hand on her waist.
She could feel his hand sliding down the outside of her thick coat to her thigh. Maris watched him break into a smile and it upset her that her outside did not show the long shadows of her inner thoughts. What am I doing to arouse his smile, she thought?
“I’ll let you decide on the language.”
“Tonight,” Jason said, opening the door, letting in a sudden rush of kitchen clatter and oblique smells sliced with the shouts of expletives. “Don’t freeze,” he said, and then the door closed loosely and then tight from a push from the outside.
A few months before she agreed to marry into this life, Jason’s stepbrother Fargas, who then played the piano on the ship, lifted her up onto blocks of ice in this same freezer, onto the unformed swans and bear cubs and requisite eagles, the ice sharp and cold through her pants and underwear. He had offered her a place in the mountains, east of San Diego, terra firma, hot slopes where no ice formed, nothing to carve. She had only known him for a month, although the period felt much longer when gauged by the confines of ship time. She had met Jason first, yet Fargas acted as though he had known her much longer; as though they’d shared something before Fargas had been able to get Jason his job.
His intensity had frightened her. Fargas seemed to be acting some desperate role for happiness because of her presence. He talked of philosophy and life mottos. He shared his nightmares. Since he’d left the ship, a certain complex richness had left her thoughts, only to be replaced by stale dissatisfaction. She felt no life mottos, only plans for them.
Maris patrolled the ice, glancing at the opened art book she’d propped against a crate of frozen vegetables. She tried to envision Botticelli’s Venus in the ice, but saw only a featureless wall. Everything had begun to bore her, even what she was good at, what brought her admiration and set her beyond looks and manner; the flirting that came so easily, almost as a default emotion. Too easily to mean much more than a smile.
Maris crouched beside her tool bag and overturned it, littering the floor. She fingered past the files, the chisels, the hot iron and cordless drill. Finally she settled for the small chain saw and roared it awake, disregarding earplugs or glasses. She circled the pillar a half dozen times, then dove in. The blade immediately showered a precipitate of sudden snow. The motor sent a turbulence of exhaust up to the light bulb where, before, only breath had hung. She cut out wedges to shape the head, the neck, the swoop under Venus’ ass. She tried to make herself feel anything as she sculpted the ice, or else to carve the ice from memory and not feelings, the way she had carved a thousand table decorations. She knew the shape of a swan’s neck like a letter, the detail of a bear’s claws like her own tamer toes. Maris set down the chain saw. In the silence, she picked up the chisel and began slicing off layers of ice, sending curlicues of frost to the freezer room floor.
The quick shaping of Venus slowed as Maris began the delicate art of features, carving the thick hair that, in the photo plate dog-eared in the art book, flowed in feigned modesty down the front of Venus’ body. Maris worked on the shape of Venus’ hips and the long clear legs which fused by the ankles into a raw block of ice. She felt warm and slightly sick from the fumes. Her ears were numb and she had to kick her shoes against the wall to make sure her feet still had feeling.
In the polished steel door of the freezer, she saw her dulled reflection, like in a medieval mirror. At the sight, she felt alone, disconnected with even the file she held in her hand. Maris looked at the ice, the painting, herself. She took off her parka, removed her shirt, and posed in the scratched metal, looking at herself, then carving, then looking at herself again. The cold stung her awake.
She wished someone would walk in on her and take away this almost phobic sense of solitude. She did not know how she had come to be so alone. She knew the logistics of her life, but still, she felt as though she were elsewhere, happier and connected. The memory of a mock question from Fargas one late night at the ship’s bar came to her, but now dressed in complete seriousness. It was after her marriage. “What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?” She had laughed at him, turning away his advances because she was married and felt a kind of loyalty to Jason, not so much out of marriage, but for the unknown in her husband, the rest of the man that was still maturing. And, honestly, for the other reasons as well, the disparity in Jason and Fargas’ looks and the sound of their voices. Sometimes she thought she’d married Jason just for his sound, even and warm, not like Fargas’ mumble of words.
But now, several years later, Jason no longer surprised her and didn’t seem to have a story she hadn’t heard, no matter how well his voice sounded. She could tell the stories better than Jason. Fargas was older than her husband, moody, dark, and stocky. Now, though, these seemed paltry judgments compared to the image she had of him stretched out in the back of her mind. “What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?” Once a line, the question now sounded in Maris’ thoughts like a judgment for not having taken up his offer for change. He’d decided to go to Julian, and he was there, now. The idea of spending time in a place with a name, as opposed to the ceaseless journey of the Arctic Isle , somewhat appeased her wants.
From her lips came the name of the town. She exhaled to erase the small cloud of evidence with a stream of foggy breath. She looked at her half-naked reflection and felt the cold creep in from her having stood still. It felt late, too late to have the ice ready, even for dessert. Maris took the chisel and disfigured the ice. At first just a nick, then broad slopes, transforming the human shape with abstract angles, half ice, half form. A kind of relief filled her movements—she could not, at that moment, undergo the tortuous inscription of lips, eyes and hair. She needed broad sweeping strokes exposing new ice.
Maris collected her tools, threw them in the bag and tossed the bag in the corner of the freezer. She looked at the remains of the block and kicked it over. It flashed opaque as it struck the floor. She put on her coat, stuffed her shirt in one pocket and walked into the kitchen. The vast room was nearly silent. Hours had passed. Except for a few Filipino dish washers, she was alone. She reflected past the steel ovens, still venting a residual heat, and entered the dining room.
The sun was rising. Once in her life, she had crossed the Arctic Circle north of Fairbanks and, from there, seen the full sun at the point between setting and rising. Through the windows of the ship, she recognized the sun as it tried to lift itself out of the parabola into which it had spent all day falling. It seemed strange to her that noon, the point between rising and setting, should pass so much in the open while that other optimistic point between setting and rising should lay buried deep beneath the horizon, unless one crossed the Arctic Circle to seek it out. All because of planetary tilt.
Maris checked the sun again and felt it was perhaps three in the morning. From the close proximity of the fir tree coast, she knew the ship had crossed the three-mile limit prohibiting gambling. She could hear the laughter of chance washing out from the casino, at first loud, then flattening out and sinking into the carpet. The only shuffling came from the few passengers heading back to their cabins. They were so old, so ungodly old. Thin-haired, slow, greedy and rude, and therefore paradoxically child-like. In and among them stumbled drunken kids who looked so young to her, clumping in bands of laughter and profanity. It often seemed to her that the passengers split their dreams of youth and their nightmares of age upon boarding, letting each find its own amusement.
In the glass windows, she watched the passengers’ reflections. Tuxes and gowns floated on the water, like ghosts of decorum searching out tragedies to attend. Maris felt as though her past, too, was strung along the ship’s route. Here she’d been happy, here she’d slept, here was yet another ghost of herself, a wake of selves.
In the foyer, Maris stopped by the model of the ship and looked at the long, sun-chair littered bow, the modern crow’s nest, the single fat fin of a smokestack and the breakdown of terraces of swimming pools. Deep inside, in the deserted foyer, she could not imagine herself now standing.
At that moment, she let a lie sprout from her loosened feelings—a fib of visiting her sister in Milwaukee to avoid accompanying Jason to Mammoth. She walked to the elevators that would take her to the deep level of rooms and their own cabin room. Her jacket swung on her breasts, and she stared down the center at the flat white column of skin running from her throat to her navel at the waist of her pants. In the elevator, she again posed like Venus, one hand across her breasts, throwing her hair, brown, not red, down one side of her face. “What’s a girl like you?” she began. The doors opened and she walked out of the elevator and down the empty hallway. In the late silence, she could hear the high electronic signature of a TV, and, opening their unlocked door, she saw that they were showing a Bob Hope film on the ship’s movie channel.
“Hey,” Jason said, then repeated himself as Maris threw off her jacket.
The sight of him there on the bed watching TV, his clothes neatly folded and draped on a hanger on the bathroom doorknob, made the room feel even smaller. Each day for a month, it had seemed to shrink.
“What are you doing, going around like that?”
“Flashing,” Maris said. One wall of the cabin was mirrored and she saw the rings around her eyes reflecting like frames from glasses. She lifted her breasts, turned to the side, then let them drop. In the mirror, she saw Jason’s questioning look.
She moved to the bathroom and brushed her teeth of the faint stickiness of a salmon dinner. She sat on the toilet and closed her eyes and then nodded back awake with a start.
When she left the bathroom, the TV was off and the cabin dark. She climbed into bed and listened to the tumble of water outside.
“Happy Anniversary,” Jason said.
She could feel his voice through the mattress. She took the hand that reached for her own and squeezed back, harder. Neither of them let go.
“May there be many more,” Jason added.
At that moment in the artificial darkness of the windowless cabin—and still held tightly, hand in hand—she had an image of the sun. It was neither setting nor rising, but resting in that brief moment between two arcs of constant movement. She let go, reached for the dresser light, and flooded the room.
Her hand felt as though it still held something, like one of her tools, and her fists tightened over this feeling. She wanted to scrape, to cut apart, to split.
“I’m not going.”
“I thought you needed to get out.”
“I’m going to Milwaukee to see my sister,” she said. In her mind, the lie sounded so obvious that she reached and flipped off the lights, as though that could hide its falseness.
Jason was quiet, and she listened to the hum of the ship, and then he turned toward her.
“We went there for Christmas, though.”
“You don’t have to go. You can still fly to Mammoth.”
Jason moved onto his side, exhaled, and seemed to sleep. Maris fell to conscious dreaming. First of sun and ice. Then, slowly, images from the deep store house of dreams came to her. As she deepened toward sleep, this dream geography opened its vastness to her and she saw Fargas’ house in Julian, like a plantation, built in a previous dream. She saw Fargas sitting at a piano under an apple tree, playing and singing Sketches of Spain. The words about desire. Deep inside herself, she winced with the same lyric and woke back in the colder country of the ship and work.
Jason stirred beside her. Maris ran her hands down her sides. She felt her ass, still damp and cold from the ice.
“Jason?” she whispered.
“Let’s learn a foreign language.”
He turned. She felt his hand trace her side and she rolled on top of him. She pressed her cold bottom against his legs and felt herself warm.
“How about Italian?” she asked, feeling him rise beneath her as he tried to sit up against the headboard.
“No,” he said.
“What does that sound like?” he asked.
She leaned forward and fed a breast to his mouth. “The Girl from Ipanema,” she said.
For a few minutes, she kept the image of the still sun in her head, but then, as much as she tried, it rose buoyantly upward, revealing below it a dreamy landscape of orchards. And then she found herself thinking consciously of Fargas without the slightest feeling of infidelity or the images of dreams to excuse her thoughts. She repeatedly and silently mouthed his name, leaving the word Fargas in Jason’s hair. And as Jason reached for her hands, she gave them willingly, imagining she held the hands of a pianist, imagining she smelled the scent of apples in the night air.
Jason willed the red slat in the lavatory door to read unoccupied as the plane from Seattle to San Francisco jostled in the turbulence. He’d had too much to drink the night before and had been gulping down water and orange juice on the plane, hoping to drive the tingle of dehydration from his fingers and the fog from his thoughts. The plane went into a second large drop and a girl in the forward section of the craft let out a short piercing scream, like abdominal pain. Jason bent to peer out a window, but his eyes fell on nothing that matched the sensation of riding across boulders. When he turned back to face the stubbornly occupied lavatory, the seat belt lights began flashing at an epileptic pace. He felt his muscles clench around his bladder as though regrasping for a better hold.
A dozen rows up, a stewardess served drinks. Jason could see she’d forgotten the wheel lock on her cart. In the turbulence, the full load of sandwiches and orange juice began rolling toward his own empty seat. Someone on the other side of the aisle took the cart in the elbow. The rest of an arm lashed out in reflex. Guy was awake. His gray hair formed a delicate nest-like corona and his face was pasty and half awake as he waved off the stewardess’ apology with both hands, like he was calling safe. He rose and staggered toward Jason, gripping the headrests to steady himself. The cabin filled with the soft metallic rustle of seat belts being latched.
“God damn,” he muttered. He rubbed his elbow and made fists with his hand. “That hurt.”
Just then, Jason heard the precious unlatching of the lavatory door. A small woman walked out with a bag in her hand, and as she and Guy squeezed past each other in the tight aisle, Jason hustled inside the lavatory. He pissed into the dark aluminum toilet, smiling from the strange engrossing pleasure of the act. The fan changed pitch as the plane rose and fell. The air smelled purposely of perfume, underneath which hung the rank signature of the woman before.
The tightness of the lavatory made him feel as though he were back aboard the ship, coming in from a shift, dog-tired and wanting sleep. In the span of forty-eight hours he and Maris had left the Arctic Isle, he on his way to Mammoth Lakes, she to her sister in Milwaukee.
He glanced at himself sideways in the small mirror. With his short hair, and wearing a white shirt and pressed pants from the ship, he thought he looked like a Mormon missionary. In a matter of hours, after they switched planes in San Francisco, he’d be in Mammoth Lakes, the new geography his mother had chosen. He looked at himself and wondered how he’d changed in her eyes since last seeing her. That’s what I’ll tell her, he thought. I’ll tell her I’ve become a Latter-Day Saint.
He hadn’t seen his mother or Guy for over a year. This trip was a concession to his desire to stay as far from Guy and the lower forty-eight as possible. In his head, most of the west coast was dead space; the land the cruise ship skirted quickly, like the seasons, as it moved south to the Panama Canal and the Caribbean route. There, they wintered, had Christmas with daiquiris and palms while they waited for the ice to break up in their summer route. Then a return to mountains and forests. Jason didn’t understand the in-between, the desert. The only place he’d lived other than Seattle was an early childhood spent in his mother’s house in Julian, in the mountains not far from the Mexican border, and that too had been dry and desert-like in his mind.
In this midair suspension between what he knew and what lay before him, Jason felt uneasy; not just from his dislike of flying, of giving away control, but from the uncertainty that gave the future an autumnal hue. He enjoyed the cruise ship life, the intimacy aboard and the vastness outside the windows as they moved effortlessly through landscapes. He felt lucky for this, for Maris, her looks and laugh, the food—all these accoutrements to his being. He also had a sense of the temporality of this kind of luxury, but he tried his hardest to remain in the present, scouring the metal basin with his aimed stream, wondering when this sensation of vacating would stop. (The very word vacation seemed less than innocent, now.) His fear lay in the realm of loss. Funny, he thought. It’s after I’ve married Maris that I most fear losing her. And then this seemed like some malicious scenario of his mind, like the dreams he sometimes had of the ship going down, of himself pushing aside passengers to get to a lifeboat with Maris, alone; then somewhere on the water, he’d see Maris in the boat and it would be, instead, an old woman who expressed a fancy for him amid the disaster of the sinking ship. Malicious thoughts.
He remembered the half-fulfilled plan: to ferry to Seattle, meet Guy, fly to San Francisco, transfer to a short hop to Mammoth Lakes, spend a couple weeks there with his mother and Guy, then (and here a kind of relief joined the reiteration of the plan) rejoin the Arctic Isle in the Caribbean where Maris would return about the same time.
The plan. The afternoon before, in a hot Seattle lobby during a rainstorm, Jason had waited for Guy. He’d put the future of the plan on his step-father’s entrance. If Guy didn’t show up, Jason would cancel his vacation on land and make his way back to Port Angeles and a ferry ride to Vancouver, before the Arctic Isle began drifting on southerly currents. If Guy arrived, the plan would continue.
When Guy walked into the lobby two minutes later, Jason reacted to the sudden age he read on Guy’s face and frame. Whereas before he’d been the kind of man who’d be fat without his height, Guy had become undeniably rotund.
“There you are,” he said, and snatched Jason’s arm and pumped it.
“I’ve been in the lobby all hour,” Jason said.
“I’ve been waiting in the bar,” Guy said with a confirming breath. “Who ever waits in the lobby? When you’re losing money, you wait in a bar. When you’re making it, then you can sit in a lobby.”
And that had been the reintroduction to Guy. The specifics of loss did not come out until that evening.
Guy had checked out of his room someplace uptown, but with his news about their real estate investment, he didn’t seem too intent on going back to Mammoth Lakes so quickly. Jason bumped his stay one more night and split his room with Guy and they sat, each on a bed, staring at the powerless TV.
“I’m sorry, Jason. But just remember, there’s others as sorry as we are.”
“We can wait for Superfund cleanup, then,” Jason said.
“Unless you want to do it yourself.”
“No,” Guy said, and Jason knew the land they’d invested in would stay as it was, mildly toxic from some post-war spill that had decided to percolate up to the surface, many square yards of which was his. Caveat emptor.
That morning, Jason had taken a taxi out to see the real estate Guy had invested in and which he himself had sunk much of his and Maris’ savings into. The land was not only attracting no serious buyers, but was not even the land Jason imagined he’d find. The spread of weed and wild undergrowth was so far from the city, he was nearly broke from the cab fare. At first sight, he knew not only that ten years of urban sprawl would be needed for the land to be discovered, but also that the only way Guy’d ever see greyhounds competing dangle-tongued in a future raceway here were if the dogs didn’t mind running uphill half the time. And from what Guy had told him, if the dogs also didn’t mind the drift of bad fumes or a little sting in the soft skin of their paws.
In the hotel, they’d left the icebox full of its pricey and all-too-small celebratory drinks and instead went down to a liquor store for cheap sorrow bottles which they brought back up to the room and sat atop the icebox in a triumph of price and proportion. The bottles fumed from the tight mouths and also from the wider glasses in their hands. For Jason, the reaction to the loss of his investment slowly turned from anger and frustration to memory. A thin margin of time, a day, lay between himself and the shock of the loss.
He remembered Guy talking of his investments back when Guy was cheating on his wife and seeing Jason’s mother. He’d half disliked him and half admired him then, but moreover, he’d pictured Guy as a man who knew the workings of the world and how to make one’s mark in it. And now, years later, Jason saw that his own judgment was equal to Guy’s. Riddled with ignorance, in other words. Everything seemed a guess, everything wins or losses. There in the hotel room, in the context of this loss and nursing a drink, Guy seemed foolish and old, nothing but pure persona.
Jason had never made plans with the tied-up money. He liked the ship, the cabin, the solitude of youth amid the aged. In the context of this feeling, it seemed to him that he’d never bought a footprint’s worth of real estate. Had, then, the land ever been important to him? Amid the calm decorations of the hotel room, he could not tell. The loss was but a natural reaction. Did he really feel his future jeopardized? After all, did he and Maris need land and money when they had a ship and a salary? No. His inability to recoup almost gave him a transcendental peace—so much loss that the money’s initial importance seemed trivial. But one side glance at Guy, at the grimace which hung on his lips and cheeks when he drank, made Jason realize that he himself might wind up living the rest of his life in the same chanciness of luck and losing. Nothing had to get better.
He found himself staring at the hotel phone and realized he did not have Maris’ sister’s number. He wanted to talk to Maris and ask her to come to Mammoth, or else, to go straight back to the ship. And if she assented, he’d leave Guy and his grimaces and fly south tonight.
But he did not move from the bed. The evening wore on and they ate in and drank down. A pool competition ran on the TV. Half the time, the camera showed the players walking around, chalking their cues as they checked angles, deliberating impossible banks with the help of a little envisioned english. Then the camera would show a top-down view overlaid with the quick sketch of a commentator’s prediction, followed by those very same moves, quick, trail-less and confident. Jason closed his eyes, sipped, and listened to the wonderful crack of the balls falling into the pockets.
“It’s no loss to you,” Guy said. “You’re young. Even if it takes ten years to clean up the place, you’ll still be around when it sells. In the meantime, Seattle will continue to spill its guts, and the land will be worth what it should be worth.”
“What were you going to do with that money?”
“Down payment on a house, maybe,” Jason said, wondering why he’d ever wanted to leave the ship. And then he remembered an Episcopalian girl he had known who had wanted him to marry her and eventually take over her father’s store, and this memory brought a gleeful smile to his lips, as though he had escaped from incarceration, or was looking back at some successful enemy whose life had finally hit a run of bad luck.
He opened his eyes and watched a woman in a blouse and black vest crack a ball into a corner pocket.
“You wouldn’t have got much house for that money.” Guy propped himself up with another pillow, then refreshed his glass.
“I thought things were supposed to settle when you get older. Shouldn’t I be putting money aside for an IRA or one of those things?”
“Here,” Guy said, tossing the Southern Comfort onto Jason’s mattress where it rocked sloshingly to stillness. He waited while Jason poured, as though he wanted the bottle back. “To hell with money,” he said.
“To hell with money.”
Jason watched the rest of the billiard competition, then a profile on a tennis player with a big ass that revealed itself like a quilted pillow when her gusty movements on the court made her skirt swing, and then they watched a police drama, and then the local news with talking heads who made him feel like an amnesiac for not knowing them and not being on reciprocally friendly terms. He did not throw the Southern Comfort back to Guy. As he spun into sleep, the snoring of Guy did not reach his ears, nor the TV as it lapsed from program to program. He woke once, in the night. His mouth tasted of citrus.
Now, in the lavatory, his mouth felt slimy with the less appealing taste of airplane orange juice. Minutes had passed in which he felt the plane ride the strange amplitude of turbulent air. He’d finished, yet stood balanced in front of the toilet for the second, smaller round, which came trickling out. He waited, then zipped up his pants. He washed his hands and his face over the sink. There were no towels. The plane fell again and as he let the water drip from his fingers, he leaned close to the mirror to explore the wide pupil of one eye for a hint of his fear.
Jason had never liked being in planes. He remembered flying with his mother when he was five or six years old, leaving Julian for Seattle, where she had a friend and later found work with Boeing. A steward gave them a tour of the cockpit. It was cramped and dim inside and he remembered watching the snake-like dangle of an oxygen mask overhead while the steward pointed out the ceiling of switches. The windows were too high for Jason to see anything but dark blue sky, almost like outer space. He sat on the cot, his knees weak from turbulence, while the steward talked. Leaving the cockpit, they followed the steward to the rear of the plane. This half had been modified to carry freight, and Jason remembered entering through a thin and flimsy door, like a lavatory’s. Inside, they were met by the thunderous rumble of wind and cruising engines and confronted with a great space stripped of seats or ceiling or windows. It felt like the middle of a storm at dusk, except there wasn’t any wind to be felt, only the sound of it roaring. In the ceiling he could see the arched shape of the plane. On one side of the plane, the body of a black car lurched back and forth over frozen tires. In his memory it was a Jaguar. A palette of crates marked Champagne and This End Up sat next to the car.
Jason remembered his mother squeezing his hand and saying that this, the car and the champagne on the other side of the rope barrier, was an omen of things to come. He remembered holding on to her hand, afraid of being sucked to the back of the plane where everything converged, the darkly glinting grill of the Jaguar, the howl, the terrific anger. In the pop of champagne explosions, his heart became one tight muscle, excited and afraid. The idle chatter that met them when they returned to the front of the plane did not give him comfort. He felt afraid of the slightest jolt, the faintest wind.
Jason stepped from the lavatory, expecting to find Guy waiting. But no one was lined up for the toilets. The aisle was still blocked by the stewardess serving drinks. Jason searched the backs of passenger’s heads, but Guy’s seat appeared empty. A third of the passengers wore headphones and watched a film playing silently on the distant screen. Far up the aisle he could see a woman waiting for a vacant lavatory.
Then he smelled the tobacco coming out from behind a curtain that led to the very back of the plane. Jason slid through the drapery and found Guy among the dull silver boxes, the strange heaters and machines with instructions that were difficult to read in the dimness.
“You hiding out back here?” Jason said.
“I need a smoke,” Guy said. One hand held a pouch of tobacco. The other hand made fists. “This is where the drinks are, too. Want one?”
“No, thanks. How’s your arm?”
“Prickly. That cart came out of nowhere.”
“Your face looks like wire mesh,” Jason said, then watched as Guy rubbed the pattern of seat fabric from his skin.
From the front pocket of his shirt, Guy took out a slip of paper. Jason watched as Guy held a corner of the paper in his lips and pulled out a liberal pinch of tobacco, returning the pouch to his pocket. He used his middle finger, like a European, to spread the tobacco along a gentle fold he made, one-handed, in the paper. In the hotel room, Guy had run out of paper and had tried a strip from the hotel stationary, but it had burned up and dumped the contents of tobacco on the sheets.
Jason smelled the strong stillness of unburned tobacco in the curtained confine. Guy next rolled the paper and tobacco together carefully, fingers pointed up until the cigarette was long and tight, all except for a thin seam that he brought across his tongue. He pinched off the ends of tobacco and hung his cigarette in his lips, the cigarette coming to attention when he brought up a lighter.
“Back in the ‘50’s,” Guy said, “I was in a plane crossing Nevada. They were testing the bombs above ground then, and the captain told us where to look to see the blast. Everyone was looking through the windows to see it, but I couldn’t find a free window, so I watched the people waiting while I had a smoke. Then the bomb detonated and for a second I could see everyone in skulls and bones, like an X-ray. Skulls and bones. Did I ever tell you that?”
“It’s something though, isn’t it?”
Jason nodded and looked at Guy’s face.
“I tell you Jason, I haven’t been that scared since. I almost pissed in my pants.”
Around Guy’s eyes, Jason could see where the paunchy flesh thinned and moved inward toward his sockets. He could see Guy’s teeth as he gingerly lit the cigarette, and they were now teeth that would never have the time to be replaced by dentures. Jason pressed his tongue hard up against his own palette. They were like skull’s teeth, canines and incisors that would outlive him. He couldn’t shake this X-ray image from his mind, an image of what outlives the body.
Turbulence rattled the inside of the plane’s cabin, but the first smoke to stream from Guy’s nostrils was steady and smooth. Then the plane fell for a few long seconds and the seat belt warning went into a fit. Guy’s cigarette drooped to his lower lip, practically touching his chin. The girl up front screamed.
Jason moved the curtain aside and looked out.
“She coming?” Guy asked.
Guy took long drags, his barrel chest sucking in the air and burning the frizzy tobacco brightly, like steel wool. He exhaled and pressed the cigarette out on the inside of a metal case. He placed the half-cigarette beneath an elastic strap on the other side and snapped the case shut. Then he took a soda can and walked out through the curtain.
Jason picked up two small cups of mineral water with foil tops and followed through the curtain. His fingers still tingled.
The first thing he saw was Guy’s back. He was leaned over, his face in the window of the exit door, his baby blue shirt stretched taut between his shoulders. Guy’s breath stuck to the glass, the fog staying there when he straightened and popped open his tiny can of ginger ale. He looked like an old giant. He tilted his head back to drink, and Jason could see that the insides of his nostrils were black all the way in. He held the can to Jason.
“To smokes and blokes,” he said.
Jason raised his foil-sealed water to meet the toast. He then looked toward his seat, but the stewardess still blocked the aisle. Jason felt it was just as well, knowing he’d be even more restless sitting aimlessly in the small soft seat. Jason peered out the window, watching the fogged plastic clear.
Guy swallowed hard and bared his teeth. “You know, Jason,” he said. “They say the tail section of a plane is the safest to be in.”
The window was clear now, except for the hair-thin nicks and grooves and the tiny crystals of ice growing on the bottom. Jason could see the wing arch over invisible mounds of rising air, the wing’s flank edged with quivering ailerons, the platinum-colored engine hanging beneath like a bomb. Jason straightened. Guy’s face looked like it was waiting for an answer. “I’ve heard that too,” Jason said.
“Say one of those terrorist types was on this plane,” Guy said. He tried to rest his drink on the oval window sill, but had to hold it to keep it from sliding down. “He’d be up front with a gun to the pilot, right here.” He tapped his temple, then pointed to the floor. “They don’t hang around back here.”
“Talking like us,” Jason said.
“Right. You handle a horse by the bit in its mouth.”
Jason tried to imagine what they looked like from below, this plane flying high enough to pass without shadows. Perhaps it appeared as a distant roar tagging behind a glint of sun, vapor trailing like a skywriter with nothing more to say, appearing safe and solid and full of purpose. He thought of his mother working for Boeing back when he still lived at home. Of the thousands who worked there, pummeling in each little hidden rivet; every inch of metal, fabric and wires oily with touch. He imagined the tremendous feel of loss for these people, every time a plane went down. He remembered his mother had cried once over such an event, and even though she only did paperwork, it had struck her someplace. Perhaps where guilt springs up from, even when there are no faults.
“Or say there was a crash, into a mountain,” Guy said, continuing. “The back of the plane would be the last to go, see?” Guy curled his left hand and crashed the other into the row of fat knuckles. His voice made the sound of an explosion, low and rough, like his speech. Without his hand to keep the can on the sill, his drink fell and rang oddly on the floor, the sound reminding Jason of a round stone thrown into a lake just right.
Guy moved his head around to take in the can from different angles, then he drew his fingers into a fist.
“When we get home, I’ll take you flying. How’d you like that?”
“My Piper Cub. With you and me, there isn’t space for any hijacker.”
Jason couldn’t help but laugh.
“Yeah,” Guy said, smoothing his hand across his belly. “I know what you’re thinking. But there is enough space for the two of us.”
Jason looked past him and watched the stewardess, in charge of her cart now and crouching to find a drink. As she arched out over the seats, the lace of her bra went from fuzzy to sharp and back to fuzzy again through her white blouse. Her body swayed with the roll of the plane, her feet were like anchors.
Jason felt that he could love almost any woman as much as Maris, or instead of Maris. After all, if they hadn’t met, someone else would be in his life now, perhaps even this stewardess with the lace bra and the broad warm shoulders. He could plunge into this ache, then settle into contentment. He could be a steward and they could travel. Then a disconcerting wave passed through him. He and Maris had never been separated during their marriage, and this easy fantasy which entered his head filled him with the strange sensation of having left some important attribute of his being on the ship. Commitment was not the word, but rather faith.
“See that?” Guy pointed. “What I want to know is why all the real lookers work up in first class. We get narrow seats and wider stewardesses. It’s the law of inverse proportions or diminishing returns or something.” He squinted at the stewardess from afar.
The stewardess started back toward them, slowly, pushing her cart of drinks. Jason now saw that she really wasn’t as young and good looking as he had imagined. It was always that way.
“Isn’t it strange how every women seems beautiful from behind?” Jason said.
“It’s a wonder.”
“All this traveling isn’t good for a man,” Guy said. “In my day, I’ve probably seen as many hotel rooms as a whore. More maybe, not counting the overlap.”
As Guy laughed, Jason thought of himself and his mother and Guy in a hotel room, back when Jason was small and Guy was cheating on his wife. He knew Guy’d forgotten those days. But the idea of Guy and a prostitute made Jason laugh. Guy’d end up sitting with them in bed, telling them about aviation or investment schemes.
Now, old and fat, his bull-shitting felt less a put on and better suited to his age. All his life, Jason imagined, Guy had the humor and character of an old man, and now, finally, he was coming into his prime.
Guy put his hands and arms in the air to let the stewardess pass. He was sweating.
“How are you doing?” Guy asked.
“Fine,” the stewardess said, stopping to pick up the ginger ale Guy had dropped. She put it on the cart. “Last call,” she said, displaying the remaining cans of soda.
Guy pulled out another ginger ale from the cans and thanked her. The stewardess looked through the window as she wheeled the cart passed them.
“We’re over California now,” she said, and then disappeared behind the curtain.
Jason looked out again, at the drought of dusty fields and the dusty forests of Northern California that passed slowly underneath. The seat belt light was still on and Jason felt as though they were descending. They seemed too far away from San Francisco yet, to be landing.
“Just between you and me, Jason, I think it’s a crock of shit.”
“What?” Jason asked, as they moved gingerly back toward their aisle seats like they were crossing a rope bridge.
“Those terrorists. They can blow up a whole plane. They don’t give a damn. And what if you hit a mountain and you aren’t strapped in? What if you’re back here, just finished with a piss? Nah. Even if this is the safest place, I think I’d rather go like that.” He tried to snap his fingers, but gave up. “I’d rather go quick than be a cripple for the rest of my life.”
Jason did not mention Guy’s limping. “I’d rather not go at all.”
Guy took his seat and Jason sat across from him. The plane began descending into a sudden-appearing boil of clouds, falling in fits and starts. After a few minutes, the engines roared louder to regain altitude, the landing gear soon extending out with a less than comforting sound. All the windows flashed and the lights flickered for a second. He heard the word lightening. Then after much jostling, the plane fell out of the bottom of the clouds and the world that Jason could glimpse through a distant window turned to rain.
“Listen,” Guy said, over the aisle. “I never had to pay for it, you know what I mean? I love your mother. I just talk. I don’t do half the stuff I say.”
“I know,” Jason said, groping for the seat belt with his fingers, his touch clumsy and weak, like a child’s.
“She’s a wonderful woman, your mother. Without her, I’m just me.”
By the third tuned piano, Fargas no longer used words. All thoughts of spending the afternoon fixing the house in Julian or of his plans to be with June later in the evening fell illiterate in the Oceanside piano store. He could only see his intentions on the fringes of his mind and pretend he understood what they meant.
His finger struck sound from a key, the vibrations warped and wrangled by his other hand flinching the tuning lever. Like a mantra, he repeated the same note until the three strings under the felt hammer joined into a tone that spoke in his ear with the small phrase of some insight.
It was fall, hot and dry with sudden days of cold fog, destroyer of tune. During the week, Fargas had been called to private homes, apartments, churches and schools. The store he worked for was giving him the runt runs—nearly one in five pianos needed a pitch raise, which meant that he’d have to tune them twice. Some piano owners didn’t bother with the minimum once-a-year tune, and he knew that whatever effort he put into the instruments, the owners would inevitably let the pianos drift again into discord. In some pianos, not only did a middle C not match a C an octave below or above, but the strings beneath the single note rang false as well. He often felt like the lone maintainer of order and structure in instruments weathered by time, temperature, humidity and negligence; the pianos either singing off-key or making sounds like a death-rattle under the slightest touch.
Nevertheless, his ear would listen patiently to discrepancies, reconciling an octave higher and lower, or fourth and fifths—intervals which lay grounded in his mind from the days of piano lessons: Twinkle Twinkle Little Star was an interval of five notes, a fourth was Here Comes the Bride.
In the piano store, Fargas finished tuning a Yamaha upright. He wiped down the keys that felt heavy and somewhat larger than the keys on other pianos. Every manufacturer used different widths. Although the differences were slight, they added up on the full eighty-eight key span. He could tell not so much by sight, but by touch; whether he played chords on the inside or outside edges of the keys. Some pianos had more than eighty-eight notes. These keys, for which he’d never seen music written, were always the least able to hold their tune and would often slink away into dry undecipherable tones at both ends of the keyboard, as though merging with the wooden sides of the instrument.
Fargas closed the lid over the keys and tucked the bench under the Yamaha. For the first time, the other elements of the store returned to his sight: the unadorned walls and the floor of Yamahas, Chickering, Mason & Hamlin and the Kawai and Bechstein he had tuned earlier in the evening. All about him sat pianos facing northwest toward the offices. There, during store hours, the salesmen could read the expressions on prospective buyers who sat envisioning themselves or a son or daughter at play. But no one was here to buy at this late hour, no salesmen either, nothing but a few spotlights left to splash on the lacquer sea of waves formed by the angle of lids. Looking through the glass doors to the parking lot, Fargas noticed that there was now another car beside his own. A Cadillac shape. An odd feeling passed through him. Fargas sat down at a rebuilt Steinway grand that had been bought that day by an old woman. He could see the car still, but could not tell if it was occupied.
For several months now, an eerie portent had seemed to follow Fargas wherever he drove at night, especially on the long lonely run from the house in Julian to Oceanside or San Diego. In the daytime it went unnoticed, but as day fell to dusk, and dusk to night, he would invariably find himself trailed by the lone beam of a single headlight.
At first, he had considered the appearance of the white-yellow light as a fluke. After all, he wasn’t being followed; every light belonged to a different car. But the fluke became a phenomenon rife with metaphor. Had this always gone on and only lately had he come to notice it? After a couple months, though, the ridiculous constancy with which he was followed him made him laugh. He would see nothing behind him, then he’d see a single headlight. He wondered where they came from.
Now, seeing a car in the lot parked beside his own, Fargas felt as though, for the first time, he had caught one of those cars as it waited for him to join the road. He felt certain, were the car to start and flip on its lights, that he’d see a single headlight. But the only sound that filtered in from the outside was the dull moan of unseen traffic. Inside the store, warm air flitted and ticked through the ducts of the heater, keeping the room dry and temperate for the pianos.
Fargas walked into one of the dark offices, rolled back a chair, and sat. He reached for the cordless phone and dialed. He looked out through the glass at the pianos as the connection went through to the town of Ramona up in the hills.
“Hi June. It’s Fargas.”
“When are you stopping by?”
“I can’t. I’m still at work. I have a couple more pianos to tune.”
Her sigh sounded as though it had been preparing for something, like fresh flowers in a vase or a prepared meal sat waiting on her tongue.
“I’m sorry, but I thought I’d be done earlier.”
“That’s okay,” June said.
Fargas looked at the desk. The dark visage of the salesman’s wife or girlfriend smiled from within a frame. Unlike this woman, June never showed her teeth when she smiled. Fargas caught the time on a digital clock beside the photo and felt sorry he’d called June so late. “Maybe we could catch the matinee sometime next week.”
“Sure. It’s okay, anyway. My daughter has some friends over, spending the night.”
Fargas rose from the leather chair and walked from the office back into the room of pianos. The connection on the cordless phone pricked with a second of static as he crossed the threshold.
“Were you in bed?” Fargas asked.
“How’s that going?” Fargas asked. He looked down the corridor toward the doors and could see that the Cadillac was still parked. Then, the dome light flicked on and Fargas could see a figure climbing out. He felt himself wanting to move behind a piano’s lid.
June was talking. “Too many things to remember,” she said. “Today we put needles into oranges to practice drawing blood.”
“Tell me,” Fargas said.
“They won’t let us do it on real people yet, so we use the needle on an orange.”
“Tell me something else you learned,” he said. As June talked about the things she was studying to get her nursing degree, the figure closed the door and disappeared in the darkness between the car and the store. And then the figure was there at the front door and Fargas relaxed. It was the old woman who had bought the Steinway.
“Listen, there’s someone here. I’ll call you later.”
“Okay,” June said.
Fargas thought he could hear the rustle of paper on the other end of the line. “Good night.”
Fargas placed the phone on a piano and unlocked the front door.
“I couldn’t sleep,” the woman said. “I know this sounds crazy, but I found myself driving here.”
“I’m just tuning,” Fargas said.
“I know. I heard you in there. Listen,” the woman said, wrapping her fingers over his arm. “Can’t you let me in?”
Fargas looked up to see her Cadillac’s dome light flicker dim, then dark. He looked back down at her.
“I need to tune at least another piano.”
“That’s fine. I won’t interrupt you. I promise.”
“I don’t know. It’s late. They open again at ten tomorrow.”
“I paid over thirty thousand for the Steinway,” she said, her eyes narrowing in an attempt to seem indignant.
Fargas felt himself acquiesce, not because he cared what she was paying, but because he could remember the feeling back before he’d bought his own grand, albeit much more cheaply and in need of work. He recognized the want. As powerful as honor or lust or revenge. He smiled.
“Stay as long as you want,” he said, holding the door ajar for her.
“I’ll make sure you don’t get hassled about this.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Fargas said, watching as she faded into the half lit interior, reappearing under the infrequent spotlights, then disappearing again.
When the woman had been there that afternoon, she’d played Mozart on the Steinway, but with difficulty. He’d detected that she played not in an attempt at improvement, but to recapture something lost. She’d smiled when she finished. In her face, Fargas had seen that she’d heard a younger self playing.
Now, she sat at the Steinway again. She lifted the lid and lightly swept several fingers across the surface of the keys, that small movement so fresh and young, despite the skin that was nearly the same color as the old ivory. Fargas picked up his tools, but he no longer felt like tuning a couple more uprights. He dropped the bag beside the Steinway.
“Would you like me to tune it for you?” he asked.
“I don’t want to keep you from your work,” she said, still running her fingers across the ivory, the keys here and there veined and discolored.
“Not at all,” Fargas said. The woman had a pleasant southern drawl which gave the deep wrinkles in her face a kind of dignity.
“Thank you, then,” she said, sliding off the bench. She now felt the lacquered wood.
“Excuse me a second,” Fargas said, lifting off the note stand and placing it behind him on the floor. The woman stepped back, found a chair against the back wall and sat.
Fargas briefly played the opening of a Scriabin Etude, then some arpeggios. He placed his felt separator between two strings, then placed his tuning lever over the peg for the undampened note.
“It’s a great piano,” he said, looking at the old woman. “Is it for you?”
“You’ll like it. If you have hard floors, put a carpet underneath it to make the sound a little richer.”
She nodded again and Fargas turned his attention back to the piano there below his eyes, in front of his hands, above his knees, and under his foot, entangled. He tuned, working his way over the myriad of tuning pegs. What lay before him was the instrument’s beautiful geography: the steel buttress-like bars splaying over the rigid triads of strings, the line of black-capped dampers keeping them mum, the light that glowed in the gold painted steel and shone on the strings as though they were a solid surface. For all of this, though, once he finished tuning a piano and sat and played something to test out his work, this assembly of steel and felt and west-grown wood would not seem responsible for the sound he heard. Too much occult depth caught in the air to come only from the piano.
A half-hour later, Fargas checked his work. He parted the near-silent current of air from the heater with a note. He began playing one of his own compositions, half-written down on paper in his house in Julian, the rest penciled on the unstable score of his memory from which he now read in a process of recollection and improvisation. Ever since his father, Guy, bought him a spinet when he was a boy—what at the time neither he nor his father knew amounted to a crappy hybrid of a harpsichord and a console piano—Fargas had been making up his own music. Mostly it was on the side, in the margins of time otherwise spent in the fierce knots of Bach or the dance call of Grieg, or else as a release to the intricacies and tedium of theory lessons.
He nearly dreamed as he played, falling into the dichotomy of mind which allowed his thoughts to wander casually on wishes while deeper within, in a place almost locked out from himself, a darker consciousness met the feel of the keyboard and, in cooperation with it, worked out the music at speeds faster than he could supply words.
Even when he was young, he remembered this distinction between words and music and the wish that words would leave. One time, after his parents’ divorce, his mother dropped him off at his father’s apartment for the weekend. She insisted he take along his paper keyboard to practice on.
Fargas remembered Guy picking up a volume of music, Bach Inventions, and leafing through it quickly like a flip-book.
“You must be getting good, now,” his father said. Guy had bought him the spinet a week before filing for divorce and had never yet heard him play.
“He is,” his mother said. She was a small dark woman who, since the divorce, had been given to answering quickly, leaving no space for ambivalence or concession.
“I bet you play as good as Liberace,” Guy said, opening the paper keyboard.
“Play something,” his mother said. “Show him how good you’ve become.”
Fargas sat at the table, took the keyboard and began to play Chopin’s funeral march. He didn’t know the notes, but played where he thought the notes would be. And while his fingers masqueraded, his young thoughts turned to a political dissident, a woman who was imprisoned for ten years, during which she kept up her piano ability by practicing on the edge of a table. His mother had told him the story in the doldrums of theory homework, and it had since carried the feeling of admiration and admonition.
“Can’t you play the fast one,” his mother interrupted.
Fargas remembered shifting into some phony arpeggios, running his finger up and down the keyboard, then playing sloppy chords, nonsense.
“That’s good,” his mother said. “Isn’t he good?”
“Real good,” he remembered his father saying. “Real dexterous.”
Now, years later in a late night in Oceanside, he found himself emerging from this memory and at the piano, still playing from some automaton within him. He stopped and took a deep breath to clear out all the thoughts and words. He was startled by the sound of breathing and turned. He’d nearly forgotten about the woman. She sat in the chair, her head tilted against the side of an upright. She slept.
Fargas again began a Scriabin Etude, but played it softly so that it sounded as though it came from far-off. Playing now had none of the diffidence brought on by distracting memories. Instead, there was a kind of absorption by the music, as though in the darkness of the store with a fine instrument, a song from dead Scriabin was reincarnating itself in him. His other non-musical self seemed to become translucent, and if any words did intrude while he moved his fingers through the piece, they were of the loneliness of this musical act. He felt time and the limited endurance of muscles as antagonists. The shortness of the piece of music embodied not only the mortality of sound but of his own life, so that even great things like June, his house, love or peace, even himself, seemed paltry in comparison. The music act seemed the truest thing he could discover, the closest communion with another, the highest complexity and also the deepest feeling he could witness, splitting through the bottom of his own experiences into some unknown realm where his own emotions did not reach. It exposed, unrepentantly, the edge of his inabilities. Fargas felt his muscles tight and hurting, his fingers blurring, his eyes jumping softly on pivotal keys in an attempt to follow the much faster sense of touch. And then it was over, just the last chord sounding in the air.
It was past three in the morning. His fingers fell into little bluesy knots and riffs that were like some last, less-demanding expenditure of his arms’ energy. But the piano was too well-tuned for blues, nor was it voiced for the harsher sound. Fargas stood and reached for his satchel. He could hear the faint reverberation of that last bluesy ending in the strings of the other grand pianos he had not yet tuned.
Fargas looked at the woman. Her skin was downy and asleep, despite the wrinkles. He wondered how June would look in thirty-five or forty years, when she was this woman’s age. If he married June, how would he look at her when she was old? Would his eyes be able to see past the age to how she used to be? Did this woman’s husband—if she had one—look at these wrinkles and slowness as the remainders of some time-gone beauty? Or did that image disappear, and did love disappear, and how great did the love have to be in the beginning to sustain a portion of itself in the later years?
Fargas noisily put his tuning lever in his bag, rustling it amid the other tools to stir the woman awake. “Good morning,” he said. “I’m leaving now.”
“Oh,” the woman said.
“I finished tuning it.”
“Thank you,” she said, rising from her chair a little disoriented.
Fargas held his arm out to the door. He found himself lending his arm as they both moved toward the exit. He held the door open for her.
“Thank you for letting me stay,” she said.
“Don’t mention it. I’ll see you and the piano in six months.”
As the woman walked to her car, Fargas jogged to the office hallway to turn on the alarm. He jogged back, picked up his tools, and prepared to lock the door from the outside. The woman’s car started and two bright headlights illuminated the lock as he inserted the key and turned it. He waved into the bright lights that cast slowly from him to the street as the woman drove off. The air was cool, almost cold, when he reached his own car. The clouds drizzled. He settled behind the wheel, started the car, and turned on the heat.
The wet asphalt was dark and looked new. On the highway, he met up again with the edge of the summer storm. He flipped his rear view mirror for night driving, then laughed. In his lane, two dozen car-lengths back, a single headlight revealed the angle of rain. He wished he had a car phone so he could call June back; not to tell her anything important, but just to talk and feel himself tied to some other place than this highway.
As Fargas drove onto a narrower road that wove up the mountains toward Julian, the single headlight behind him disappeared. The inside of the car was warm now and he snapped off the heat and rolled down a window to draw in the fresh, ozone-rich air. After a slow dark climb, broken only by the lights from Ramona and the occasional glow from a house along the apple groves, Fargas pulled up on Julian’s short main street, quiet and dark in the pre-dawn sleep. He climbed a dirt road until he saw the familiar giant oak by the garage, the nearby street lamp casting shadows of the limbs onto the patina of moss on the house’s roof. He parked his car and left his tools in the back seat. Fargas skirted the scaffolding and the bucket of water and trowels where he had worked last weekend. As he stepped inside his house, the smoky odor of mountain air brought a stinging dryness, and he felt good to be back after a long day.
Then he smelled apples.
On her exercise bike, Sandra pedaled hard up the last hill of mechanical resistance, then felt her pulse slow as the incline leveled. In the kitchen sat several inches of pancakes and a plate of melon wedges between place settings for Guy and Jason. She could hear her son creaking the downstairs floorboards as he rose.
Guy sat beside his untouched plate holding a letter in his hand, the two creases shaping the paper into a trough of words, the main gist being that the USGS now deemed staying in their house, and a few dozen others, a health risk. The letter had come two days ago when Guy was still in Seattle.
“They don’t call it an evacuation,” Sandra said, wiping her forehead as she continued the cool down portion of the cycling.
“Of course not. And I don’t blame them. It’s bad business.”
“But it is an evacuation,” Sandra said.
“Yeah. That’s one way of reading temporary displacement.”
Sandra looked outside at the browning grass. The area around the embedded sensor seemed the source of the emissions, as though the USGS had punctured some underground vein which, untouched, would have kept all the gas down underground and been little concern to them. She imagined that by pedaling she was pumping it back beneath the ground, like bilge.
“Looking good,” Jason said. She turned and saw him staggering up the stairs.
“Well, morning,” she said.
“How long have you been doing the exercise thing?” he said, his voice even deeper from sleep.
“This was a Christmas present from Guy. It was meant for us both, actually.” She looked at Guy who was stuffing the notice back into the envelope.
Sandra stepped off the machine. “Here. Try it.”
Jason sat on the seat and began pedaling, the wheels dusting with friction.
“No, don’t adjust the settings,” Sandra said. “Just pedal.”
“I’m not. I’m just seeing what it feels like.”
“He’s been on the boat too long,” Guy said, laying the letter aside and putting on a smile. “His legs are atrophying.”
“Your legs are atrophying,” Sandra said, looking at Guy. “I do four miles every morning. I could be in Hawaii if you add all those mornings together.”
She watched her son pedal. He seemed a bit less trim since she’d last seen him, with a slight rise in his hairline. His hair stuck out at odd angles, still asleep. More than anything, she wanted to run a comb through his hair.
“Can you jog around for exercise on that boat?” Guy asked.
“Sure. There’s a track. Maris sometimes uses it. It’s a big lap,” Jason said. “The ship is bigger than you think.” He climbed off the bike and sat down for breakfast.
“I saw that on a commercial once,” Guy said. “People jogging on a cruise ship.”
“Guy promised me a cruise one day,” Sandra said.
“Sure. You’ll get it.” Guy skimmed several pancakes from the stack and lifted each one to dribble in maple syrup, thick from being in the fridge.
“But I’m not going to do any jogging. I’d want to eat,” Sandra added.
“That sounds like quite a life,” Guy said. “Living on a cruise ship.”
Jason swallowed a mouthful of pancake and nodded while loading his fork up with more.
Sandra watched him eat. To have her son back was not as intimate a feeling as she had expected. She could not read him as well as when he was younger. Within, she lamented that he had not gone to school and taken a degree, some job in which he could climb. What she recognized in him was a yearning for a simple life, almost a dedication to laziness. She’d seen the cruise ship life as a summer job which was becoming permanent by a kind of sneaky ability of the years to give the temporary a sense of permanence.
Sandra had known this feeling herself after marrying Guy. The ease of long summers doing nothing, the winters of pristine content. But then, of course, came age and Guy’s bad leg. Also his weak heart that fluttered at night. Every concession nicked at a life of ease, even the smallest restrictions, like the cessation of mountain hikes, like only drinking decaffeinated coffee. And now the earthquakes, the gas, the act of moving.
“Did you feel the tremor?” Sandra asked, taking a slice of honey melon.
Jason looked up. “When?”
“Right before sunrise.” She watched Guy, but already knew what he would say.
“It was tiny,” he muttered. “I didn’t feel it.”
“You’ve been having a lot of them, haven’t you?” Jason asked.
“It’s a swarm,” Sandra said.
“Swarms pass,” Guy added.
Until it did, Sandra knew they had to move south to Julian. She and Jason had left Julian years ago, and always she knew she would return, but not so soon. Not so young yet, not even a widow, not finished. She had never been a complainer, so these new regrets since receiving the notice were selfish. She hoped the regrets would pass. What she least looked forward to was moving their possessions. They would put most things in storage, but she was unsure what furniture remained in Julian and what to take along. Every time she approached Guy with the subject, he brushed it off to a future decision. She hoped that Guy’s son, Fargas, who rented the house, had not let it fall into shambles.
“So what do you do when you’re not working?” Sandra asked, trying to think of something else. “Do they give you any time off?”
“He’s on a cruise ship,” Guy said. “What does he need time off for?”
“Yeah, well,” Jason said, taking another pancake.
“Aren’t cruise ships dangerous?” Sandra asked. “I heard that one went down last month and killed three hundred people. A whole boy’s choir went down.”
“That was a ferry,” Jason said. “In Scandinavia.”
“Ah,” Sandra said. “But you’re paying attention.”
Guy and Jason ate silently.
“Too bad Maris couldn’t make it here,” she found herself saying, almost obligatorily. Jason had told her that Maris was visiting her sister, yet Jason hadn’t seemed at ease since beginning his vacation. The look in his face was not loneliness, but an exhausted quietude that told her something was not right, something that he didn’t seem to have the energy to make better. Sandra noticed a similar mood in Guy.
She had not seen Maris since the marriage, and still she could not imagine her son waking in Maris’ arms, the girl she read as loose in a moment’s glance. Something in the eyes. The ring on Jason’s finger was like a remainder of some act of play, and having him there in Mammoth alone, made her feel as though he was unmarried. She looked at Jason and wondered what he felt now. If the temporality of love, a veneer undetectable at the time, had worn thin, exposing him to desires for change. But the sad feeling that skirted around her thoughts was how set life was for him already and how little life would become for him if he remained looking for ease.
Guy stood and walked to the wall where a barometer hung in a brass enclosure.
Sandra sat and poured herself a glass of juice.
“How about we go flying in the Cub today?” Guy asked.
“Perhaps he’d like a day to relax,” Sandra said, putting her hand over Jason’s.
“Nah,” Jason said, waving a slice of melon speared on his fork. “I’m fine.”
Sandra looked at Guy. “I don’t want you doing any of that funny stuff while you’re up there.”
“Me? Never.” Guy grinned as he licked the syrup on his stubby fingertips. He put his plate in the kitchen and rinsed his hands.
Whenever she flew with Guy in the Piper Cub, he flew straight, but she knew that he took risks when he was alone and risks were what she wanted least these days. Every time he went flying she feared for his safety. She’d keep her eyes focused on the weather, wishing away clouds.
Guy headed toward the stairs, turning once. “Fifteen minutes?”
“Sure,” Jason said.
“I’ll put you through an initiation.”
“No funny stuff, though,” Sandra repeated, even though Guy had turned and was sinking down the stairs.
“Nothing too funny,” she heard him say.
She began clearing the dishes, stopping to examine the barometer on her way to the kitchen. The needle lay between wet and fair, thankfully closer to fair.
“What’s happening to Guy’s leg?” Jason asked, following with the butter and bottle of maple syrup in his hands.
“Didn’t he tell you?”
“I asked him and he said ‘bum leg.’“
“He doesn’t get enough circulation,” Sandra said. “He probably needs surgery.”
“He still smokes.”
“I know. The doctors will have to take an artery or a vein and run it down his leg to replace the one there that’s dried up.”
“So why doesn’t he just stop smoking?”
“It’s too late. He’ll still need surgery.”
Jason rinsed his hands under the tap and headed for the stairs. She’d hoped to have more time with him and ask him about he and Maris’ future, whether he would be going back to school.
“You sure you want to go up in the Cub?” she asked.
Jason’s shoulders moved up and down as he descended the stairs. She read them as shrugs.
She finished clearing the kitchen and went downstairs to talk to Guy. He stood in the bathroom combing back his hair.
“Listen, what about calling for a U-haul?” she said. “The paper says pretty soon they’ll have to bring them in from Bishop, maybe even Bridgeport.”
“Wait till I get back. I’ll call.”
Jason came out of the spare bedroom in bright white sneakers and leaned against the door jamb.
“Ready?” Guy asked.
Jason righted himself and followed Guy outside.
“No funny stuff,” Sandra said.
“The ol’ ball and chain,” she heard Guy say. He laughed. “Prepare yourself, kid.”
Sandra waved as they drove off. Then she reentered the house and looked at the cardboard boxes she’d packed weeks before. There was still more that had to go before their week long evacuation notice gave out. In the bathroom, she tidied up the unessential toiletries, putting them in plastic bags which she dumped into a box. She took nearly all the sheets and towels from the pantry and pushed them down into two more boxes. She moved about the house opening cupboards, drawers, removing everything and stuffing them into even more boxes, without bothering to mark the contents on the outside as she had before. The more she packed, the more spacious the house became. In the kitchen, she stowed away pots and wash towels, emptying all of her possessions into cardboard, and working up a sweat until there was nothing left but food and the minimum of dishes. She opened the freezer door and let the cold air, smelling slightly of fish, tumble onto the floor and around her hot feet.
Despite her hopes, she had the feeling that she would never live here again, her thoughts clouded with a deep pessimism that the bulge of molten rock below would subside. She stepped on every tile in the kitchen if only to gather a sensation which soon would be past, a geometric dance like a bee pointing the way to visited flowers.
It was late afternoon before she took a break. She sat and rested. Although it was hot in the sun, the air that drafted the house was cool, and the warmth from packing soon left her. She turned on all the burners on the stove top, bringing the crests up to bright blue rings. She held her hands high above in the rising heat. Then she took one of Guy’s flattened aluminum sheets and held it in the flames until it was too hot to bear. She threw the metal over and onto the counter, but the bottom was black and sooty, unlike when Guy performed his alchemy. She moved to turn off the range, but then felt a strange desire, one of wanting to prevent anyone from stepping into this house after they moved out, like wanting to burn your own town and fields ahead of approaching enemies.
She searched a packed box for a glass, then emptied the contents in a heap of exasperation. The closest thing she found was the remaining vase. She rinsed it under the ice cold tap and carried it to the balcony, stopping to pick up a bottle of cognac, liquor meant for the Piedmonts. They’d decided to leave Mammoth Lakes in the cool of night and stopped in briefly to say goodbye. She’d forgotten to run upstairs and give them the gift.
Now, outside on the balcony, Sandra sat in the old wicker chair and unstopped the bottle, pouring the cognac into the fluted vase. She felt a conflict of emotions in her: the act of moving, of course, but also placelessness, shifting surroundings, dwindling security—and selfishness. At this moment, in the late afternoon malaise, she could not imagine the area blowing up. The very idea, and the risk, seemed preferable to going back to the tightness of Julian—the desert on one side, urban landscape on the other.
Bringing the lead crystal to her lips, she filled her mouth with cognac, then swallowed and gripped the wicker as her eyes teared. More than anything, she wanted to know the place, the house, the town where she could build up a permanent life. How confident she’d been that Mammoth would be the place. Julian, of course, had been in her mind, but more like a ghost of a past life. She felt that old roving placelessness again, those anticipatory nerves which she’d hoped to put behind her when she met Guy.
Although he was older than her, their relationship had felt natural from the start, even when she learned he was married. It had seemed as though the years he had on her were those same years in which she had raised Jason alone. Later was always better than more of that life, even now with the gulf of their years somehow more apparent. Sandra eased another mouthful of cognac down her throat and looked at the view, and for a moment could not remember how old she was.
In front of the house stood a few aspens. Not far off, a stream ribboned through a stretch of grass and reeds. Behind that rolled the avocado green golf course and the empty, unsold, perhaps also uninhabitable, houses. Mammoth Mountain, seeming anything but a volcano, would soon plunge them all in shadow. She wondered how she could have ignored the patches of sulfur-colored snow left on its rounded peak, or the pumice gray swaths of ski runs that looked like disciplined avalanches. How could she have not dwelled on this sudden and huge molehill in the otherwise sharp and hard geography of the area. Lord, she thought, her eyes watering with drink, there’s no old growth forest for miles. She took another swallow. This time her eyes stayed clear as she watched the gondolas moving up the mountain, taking sightseers or mountain bikers up to the summit, to views of Yosemite, Mono Lake and Nevada. She saw the gondolas as protection. As long as they moved, as long as this rosary of beads passed within her sight, this was a generic mountain. Stone, stone, stone to the core.
She got up to look through the telescope, feeling the effect of the liquor as she aimed the eye piece. This time she did not look at the mountain or at the Piedmont’s vacated house. Through the telescope she gazed at the homes outside the evacuation perimeter in a kind of jealous voyeurism. A man watered his lawn thoughtlessly, shaking the hose to let the water wave playfully in its fall to the grass. Two workmen nailed shingles on a new construction that was so far away, no sound reached her. Cars flickered through the trees on the road to Twin Lakes. The moment felt beautiful and warm. In this imaginary pause, even she felt herself joined in these acts of the everyday.
Then she sat down again and the foreshortened glimpses sped back beyond her vision to their distant depths. Lord, she thought, below me now, below everything, everywhere, there’s melted rock. Her eyes followed the gondolas on the razor thin wires, and she felt a deep urge to stay or run. She thought of Guy, Jason, and the house in Julian, trying to frame the move in the context of words like opportunity and adventure. Like cool relief, she remembered an evening in Julian when Jason was six years old and sick with a cold. He’d told her he had cabin fever. He was so adamant that he had the viral cousin of Rocky Mountain Fever that she had been unable to convince him otherwise. And then this memory evaporated as Mammoth Mountain slipped cold shoes of shadow over her bare feet.
Sandra brought her feet up under her legs and cut the remaining cognac in the vase, not with water, but with another splash from the bottle. She felt herself burning, hot from the drink, the work, the sun. Melting. Overhead, a white trail burst from a passing jet. At first she thought it was a skywriter, but the letter continued in a long streak. Immediately, she thought of Guy and Jason in the Piper Cub. Her nightmares rushed into her mind, so fluid and alive, as though projected by the setting sun.
Sandra felt herself drift into this nightmare, the sun like hot thumbs on her eyelids, her head light, her eyes tearing. In her dreams, it happened over a desert. She saw the Piper Cub drop from the sky. She could feel it plummet, but she also could see it from the ground, the plane a glint, a silent fleck of light swirling down between the parapet of the eastern Sierra Nevadas and the mountains riding the Nevada line. The plane disappeared into this basin of evaporating heat until, finally, dust rose from the desert floor: long, billowing, and angry.
When she woke, the sun was down, the sky dark blue. Briefly she saw Venus and then it disappeared into the horizon’s glare, Lucifer falling. In the darkness of the house, blue coronas of flame rose. She felt her way into the hot kitchen, turned off the burners which she had inadvertently left on, and reopened the freezer door to cool the room. Her head spun. She then moved downstairs, but the rooms were as vacant as she’d left them. The driveway, too, was empty.
She lifted the phone and dialed the airport. As the phone rang, she felt her forehead forming a headache, pumping into shape with every beat of her heart.
Maris sat up front so she could peer through the large windshield as the bus heaved up into Santa Teresa Valley. She did not know the names of the valleys, only the town of Julian, and only then the name and the knowledge that Fargas lived there. Drizzle dabbled on the windshield, vanishing the homes and orchards which would reappear in pockets of open rooms under the roof of fog. Except for herself and the driver, the bus was empty. Even so, Maris kept her large duffel bag close beside her, regretting that she had underestimated the climate—she thought it never rained in southern California.
The bus driver leaned forward and looked up at the sky, his bland expression changing to an affected disappointment which Maris was certain was for her.
“It’s going to be more of the same tomorrow,” he said. The wipers gathered the beads of rain and flung them into the air, allowing Maris to see the black asphalt and yellow stripes disappear into another wall of fog.
“It reminds me of Wisconsin,” Maris said.
“No. The hills, the farms and everything.”
The driver nodded as they blasted into the fog. “Are you from Wisconsin?” he asked.
“No. But everything looks like the pictures I’ve seen of Wisconsin.”
The road paralleled a barbed wire fence with old bark-stripped limbs for posts. Beyond the fence, a stream overflowed the channels it had cut in the great slab of bedrock. One pool watered a group of cows that had ventured out from the fog. Pine trees began appearing where, before, only yellow scrub grass and massive oak trees had stood. All the way from the coast, the bus had climbed up through hills and around gorges. Maris felt they must be at the summit of the mountain chain she’d seen on her map, the geology separating the metropolis of San Diego and Oceanside from great eastern tracts of desert and flat endlessness. Maris put her hand through the handle of her duffel bag and waited.
The bus climbed up the road, shifting gears as the first buildings appeared. A banner hovered over the street, as though strung for her arrival. It read: APPLE DAYS. The bus hydraulics gasped and the door opened. A blow of cold air brought the smell of apples and pastry dough.
“Thanks,” Maris said, stepping onto the sidewalk. She turned and looked up at the driver. “Which way to the main street?”
“Either way,” he said. “You’re standing on it.”
Maris hoisted her duffel bag on a shrugging shoulder. The bus rolled forward and disappeared in the fog. She heard it change gears, and then never again.
Maris had thought a lot about Julian for the past week, but she had not imagined to find only this short stretch of curio shops and bed and breakfasts. The windows of the tight facades revealed embroidered pot holders, reconstructed Indian pottery and dried flower arrangements. The buildings gave out by the post office, seemingly the newest construction, and Maris turned and walked the other direction, back to the banner slung across the street. She followed the scent of apples and stepped into a bakery, where she bought a hot apple pie. She carried the pie carefully outside and placed it on top of a pay phone. She dug Fargas’ number from her bag.
Blood rushed to her heart and made her head feel light. She felt the moment being recorded by her brain, as though to make her infidelity indelible, even though, on the cusp of this act, the act of betrayal was far from what she’d imagined. Infidelity was not some hot impassioned moment, but like this: words to form a simple lie, cold drizzle falling like pollen, the phone in her hand, a dime slipping irretrievably into a dark tone, her cold fingers entering Fargas’ number.
She breathed deeply, spoke aloud to test her voice, and waited.
Rings. After several attempts, she instead looked up his address in the phone book and wrote it on the inside of her hand. Then she gathered up her bag and the pie, which by now was making her hungry, and began up the hill toward the homes. A guiltiness shifted about her insides like hunger.
The sky was a dismal mix of fog, drizzle, and night. She’d been in town for less than half an hour and except for the woman in the pie shop, she’d scarcely seen anyone else. Maris checked the inside of her hand at a crossroad and continued where the asphalt gave way to a mix of gravel and dark earth. She marveled that she was in Julian. But despite the reality of the place, she felt as though the real Julian existed somewhere else, the imagined town that lay in her head and had sprouted streets and parks whenever she thought of it. The pie weighed more with each minute that passed and failed to promise, and with every sight of smaller and smaller homes, a sense of disappointment slowed what had been a mercurial pace.
The road narrowed and passed homes where the future seasons seemed to have already taken hold, routing occupants and color. The road crossed a creek and parted through some pines and there Maris stopped. She looked at the inside of her hand, then up. With a sweep, the house she imagined was demolished. In its place, she saw a rectangular dark brown building with a foundation of river rocks—the concrete between the rocks looking freshly squeezed and unshaped. A ladder, workbench, and an assembly of two by fours surrounded one end of the house where a chimney rose. She couldn’t imagine there being rooms inside such a small home. Maris walked to the door. The ground was a carpet of shriveled oak leaves, tiny and dry, despite the drizzle, snapping underfoot as she approached. A giant oak hung its limbs over the roof, like muscled arms.
Again, she waited. Facing the door, Maris felt a slight wave of claustrophobia. She knocked, waited, then walked behind the house where a steep rocky hill rose just a few feet from a white propane tank.
How could Fargas, the Fargas she remembered, be living here? The more she looked around, the less she liked the place. She thought of how glad Fargas would be to know he no longer had to live here in a tiny house at the end of dirt road. She would be his way out, the hand to pull him from his bad luck. In her mind, Fargas sat in the house day in and day out, depressed, hopeless, and caught. Together, they could travel, perhaps to Mexico or Europe. Or to Asia, where she knew none of the languages and few of the customs, where things as simple as greetings, ordering food, and showing affection would be new and bewildering.
Maris turned the back door, but it was locked. Through the windows, she caught the faintly discernable geometry of a couch, chairs, and what seemed the spread of a floor rug. Moving from window to window, she found one that was unlocked and lifted it. She shot a checking glance up the hill behind her, then sideways, but saw only distant lights through the trees. She slipped over the ledge and inside, reaching back for her bag and the pie before she faced the room.
She found herself in the kitchen. After locating the light switch, she saw that the interior was as sparse as the outside of the house. A frying pan full of water, with blue and yellow swirls of grease floating on top, sat on the stove. A faint smell of gas wafted over the range.
“Hello?” she said. “Fargas?”
She moved into the next room, a tiny pantry, then backtracked and found herself in the living room where something moved. She froze, felt for a light, then found herself in the company of an enormous black piano. A thin reflection of herself slipped across the curved side as she moved closer. The piano occupied the entire room, except for a small love seat in the corner. The top of the grand was covered with notes and house plants. At the very end, facing the couch, a small TV sprouted rabbit ear antennas overgrown with a climbing ivy.
There was something upsetting about having a grand piano in such a small room, as though, like a ship in a bottle, there was some trickery at play. But she felt relieved to find it there, at the same time. Until then, she’d feared that perhaps Fargas no longer lived here.
Maris squeezed past the instrument and breathed in the relative space of the doorway, then continued down a hallway.
“Fargas?” she called out.
She stared at an open toilet, then walked on and found a bedroom. A steel-blue bed frame held a box spring and a queen size mattress. The mattress bowed down the middle. Across from the bed sat a dresser with an orange-shaded lamp on top. She turned it on and small sunflowers appeared on the shade.
Back in the kitchen, she took the apple pie from the box and inserted a finger. It had gone cold. She opened the oven door, slipped in the pie, and turned the dial. Then, she took her bag with her to the bedroom and stepped out of her wet clothes.
Adapting so quickly to the tiny house, Maris understood how Fargas could fall to living here. The house felt so far from the town, people and noise, like some retreat in an unknown land that would only reveal itself when the sun rose. She let these ideas spill about her as she showered in the tight bathroom, the heat of the steam almost unbearable, like a sauna. She turned to face the spray of water and her nerves shot the heat into the fringes of pain. But she stood and took it, and closing her eyes, thought of Jason where she had last seen him, stepping into a taxi in Seattle. He hadn’t turned to look back at her as the taxi moved away, even when the taxi almost immediately caught a red light and waited for a minute at an intersection. There, the story of visiting her sister became undefined; she could not gauge whether Jason believed it or saw the lie, the euphemism by which she had decided to leave him. She could not imagine that Jason would believe the latter, not when the time aboard the Arctic Isle had been devoid of those scenes which he, and she too, would have equated with a dire union. Rather than arguments, there had been silence, rather than growing apart, they had grown together, pressed together, in the repetitive journey of the ship. Everything became a type, a type of day, a dozen basic passenger types, her life becoming thoughtless. She was uncomfortably satiated by cycles of light and dark, north and south, work and sleep. The straight line of her life turned to ribbon.
The pain of the hot water suddenly gave way to the flushing grip of pure cold. Maris shut off the stream and let the water drip from her body. Her departure from Jason was like the moment between hot and cold, sensed, because of the delay of nerves, only after the moment of irrecoverability.
As she slid aside the shower door, cool inrushing air settled on her, making her feel light. Maris smiled, anxious for the new. She wrapped a towel around her hair and head and moved quickly into the bedroom where she changed. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she painted her toenails. The digital clock on the dresser read eight-fifteen. She screwed the brush cap closed and walked, toes curled upward, over the plush carpet. The wall opposite the bed was made up of closet doors, and she slid them aside. Removing the sunflower shade from the lamp allowed the harsh bulb light to illuminate the tight file of shirts, the stacks of shorts, rolls of underwear and socks, and the line of shoes. She ran her hand behind the underwear and socks, but only found a shoe horn.
A buzz in the kitchen brought her to the oven. She removed the pie and placed it on the round kitchen table, then searched the cupboards for two plates, two forks, two glasses. She opened the refrigerator, but it was nearly empty. She pulled out a beer, put it back, then opened the freezer and felt the cool air bearing the familiar smell of ice. For a moment she felt herself back on the Arctic Isle. Now toolless, she wished she’d brought everything with her, and that she had not only informed Fargas of her coming, but had told Jason that she was not going to Milwaukee.
She cut herself a piece of pie and took the plate back with her to the bedroom. Between bites, she combed her hair. She hadn’t eaten since morning, and she savored the soft sweet apples and the velvet feel of hot pastry kneading between her tongue and teeth. She moved to the closet and smelled Fargas’ shirts, but the odor was purely fabric and a faint trace of detergent. For a moment, she could not remember Fargas’ face. Then, like a portrait artist, her memory sketched in the eyes, the nose, lips and hair. She imagined him in these clothes and could even see him with a beard. She hoped that he had grown one during the last year in this mountain town, grown one just so he could shave it off again now that she was here in Julian, in his bedroom, waiting.
Maris slid down the closet door jamb and sat on the soft carpet. She took another bite of apple pie and then, looking up, she spotted writing on the opposite jamb. The door jamb was marked with lines of ink, like an irregular ruler. Beside each tick mark were written numbers: 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. The lines were close together at the bottom, but then spread further apart, like the growth rings of a tree in wet years. At the top of the measurements was written a name. Jason.
Maris felt the lines, then withdrew her fingers. She imagined a young Jason standing straight against the jamb, a ruler pressing down his hair for accuracy. She’d forgotten that he had grown up here. In her mind, Julian had always been Fargas’ domain, and now, knowing Fargas was living in the house of his stepbrother, Maris felt all the more glad she had come and could release him. At the same time, though, she felt her first regrets for leaving Jason—not the Jason aboard the Arctic Isle, but the ghost of his younger self, the small boy walking and playing in the house, the boy whose heart she’d break two decades later.
“I’m sorry,” she said aloud.
She closed the closet door and moved back to the kitchen where she sat and stared at the large clock. The minute hand moved infinitesimally as the second hand spun slow and smooth. Where will I be one month from now, she thought? A year? Ten? She hoped she would soon find herself happier, perhaps working a hotel with Fargas in the warmth of the Caribbean or stepping into that Asiatic dream. Imagining her future this way gave a sense of ordered possibility to what otherwise felt like a chaos of fog. She’d even consider returning to the cruise ship life if Fargas would too. Moreover, she could see herself giving up her ice carving. She was talented, this she knew, but did it really make her happy? Never, unlike Fargas’ piano, did it occupy an entire room of her being. It was a job, and besides, she could switch to another medium, or stop. Although she thought she and Fargas were similar in what they did—her work melted, his music evaporated into the air—she always felt his art was the better of the two. Where could she carve, but on cruise ships and in hotels?
Maris cut herself another slice of pie and took the rest with her into the room with the piano. The love seat was soft and pure give, like down feathers, and she tucked her feet under the cool pillow at the opposite end. The house was so quiet that she could hear it ticking and creaking, the sounds of a night breeze ever so slightly unburdening the eaves. She was amazed by her own calmness. All her troubles seemed already considered, paired up with solutions, and set aside. The absolute steadiness of the ground, so noticeable after several years afloat, made everything feel heavy, sleepy, and safe.
With the lights off, the piano keys were the brightest thing in the room. Maris leaned from the couch to play a few notes. They were perfectly in tune, despite what she had hoped. Partly, she felt guilty for setting Fargas so low, but she remembered how much he had wanted her, and this seemed to forgive her images of him. She knew that her action aboard the cruise ship had seemed the right one at the time, one that eventually left her feeling miserable. Truth and happiness, she had since learned and thought, are two masks that can’t always be worn at once.
Fargas had been rhapsodizing on the piano in the Arctic Isle’s lounge. Jason had finished serving the second dinner shift and gone below, to bed. Maris sat at the bar. Through the windows behind the lounge, the sun sat stalled in mid-set, the steady light aging the high mountain snow the same color as the old Bösendorfer’s ivory keys. At the water line rose fir trees that separated the sea from the mountains in a buoyant belt of green stretching as wide as there were windows.
Inside, the lounge was nearly empty and overlooked the deserted dining room where tea lamps still burned at some of the tables. She listened to Fargas as he finished some Gershwin, slid his foot off the pedal, then set the felt against the strings, deadening the final notes’ quiver. He unknit his bow tie as he walked over.
“Hey,” he said. “What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?” It was his customary salutation, and Maris smiled.
“Here for the money. Naturally.”
“Good,” Fargas said, placing his jacket on the rounded shoulders of a neighboring stool. “Straightforward. I like that. And does your husband know?”
“I’m not married. Yet.”
“Ah. Even better,” Fargas kidded, with just a taint of seriousness in his voice. He swiveled to the bar, ordered a beer, and yawned open-mouthed. “So,” he said at last. “Carve anything new?”
Maris swung around to face the bar. “I tried a moose, but I overestimated the weight of the antlers.”
“It looks like an ugly deer.”
Maris could feel Fargas’ gaze banking off the bar’s mirror. His skin was dark from lying out on the deck and his eyes hardly blinked. She spied at him by looking at herself: her long hair turned black in the dim light of the lounge, her sweater spotted dark by the chips of melted ice from the evening’s carving. She looked at Fargas and his eyes blinked.
“Cut it out,” she said.
“What?” he asked, reaching to touch her hair.
Maris stood and moved to the piano.
“Have you thought about it?” Fargas asked, following her.
“No. I completely forgot.”
“Really?” He moved to sit beside her on the piano bench.
“Of course not. But it’s your fantasy.” She ran her fingers lightly on the dull strips of tusk, dry and warm, growing cooler the farther she ventured up and down the keyboard. She could see the reflection of her fingers in the lacquer, the mirror image odd and foreign.
“Why? Think of it, no more placelessness. Real ground. A real house. Trees—a yard.”
“Jason would kill you,” she said. “Besides, I’m making money here.”
Fargas laughed. “He’s a feather. And who needs money?” He lifted a pinch of hair.
“Cut it out,” Maris said.
At the time, she’d seen Fargas as merely a flirt. The idea of leaving Jason, the man she would marry in a short time, was truly ludicrous. Fargas, in her eyes, was a test. She took his talk of contentment and happiness, and his desire that she should somehow share them, as coming from the fact that he was nothing but lonely, restless and horny. Her belief then was that any restlessness she felt would settle with the inevitability of time and circumstance. It was not that she did not love Jason or that she loved Fargas—she didn’t. She merely figured that the uneasiness she did feel, and with which Fargas hounded her, was an attribute of the cruise ship life. She would leave the ship, with Jason, in a few years. But despite all this, she did feel a shadow pass on her decision. She knew then she was turning down a different life.
Fargas broke into cruise ship music, playing so softly the notes seemed to waft in like canned music from some other room. “Let me ask you this, then,” he said. “Why are you here in the lounge at two in the morning?”
“Having a drink,” Maris said quickly, spotting her glass at the bar and wishing she had carried it with her. “I get thirsty carving all that ice.” She smiled at Fargas’ smile.
“I love you,” he said.
“You think you do,” Maris answered.
Fargas smiled again, and this time when he moved closer, she did nothing. At these times, believing she should restrain her affections to one person seemed harsh, even cruel. Being with Fargas made her wish she could be more than one person. But the flippant, lighthearted Fargas seemed a persona over a darker and more intense character, a feeling she rarely felt when with Fargas’ stepbrother.
“I hate to think of you down in that kitchen,” Fargas said. “All those Filipinos giving you the eye.”
“I have Jason there,” Maris said, smiling.
“Yeah. I hate that too.”
In the dining room, a kid with melanoma size freckles was arranging the settings for breakfast. He folded napkins, returned strayed chairs, and set thin empty vases for every candle he leaned toward, blew out, and took away.
Light flared all about the grand piano in the small room in Julian. Fargas stood in the doorway. An empty pie pan fell silently from Maris’ lap as she rose.
“Maris!” He seemed at a loss to add anything else.
“Well,” she said. “Can you guess what a girl like me is doing here?”
Fargas drew his open palm down over his mouth. He did not have a beard. Moreover, he was dressed in slacks, shirt, and even an open vest.
“Last I heard, you guys were still working the ship.”
“We were,” she said, “or still are.”
“He’s the one still working the ship.”
“What brings you down here, though?” Fargas asked. His fingers rustled some keys in the depth of his pockets.
“On a vacation,” Maris said. “A long one.”
“And Jason didn’t want a vacation?”
“No, he’s on vacation too. In Mammoth Lakes, somewhere not here,” she said. “Don’t I get a hug?”
“Sure,” Fargas said, moving around the piano and embracing her lightly. His skin was lighter, his hair shorter, and she couldn’t detect any cologne.
Maris had not expect his awkwardness and so she covered herself with fables. “Didn’t you get my letter?” she asked, almost believing she’d sent one.
“Oh well. Here I am.”
He made a noise like a laugh. “You sure are.”
Maris sat in the love seat and drew Fargas beside her.
“You want something to drink?” he asked.
“No thanks” she said, then lifted the pie tin from the carpet and placed it on the piano. “I brought you a pie. I thought you’d be home.”
“I work late.”
“Tuning pianos. But how are you doing?” Fargas asked, lifting her hand, then placing it back on her knee.
“Same thing. Up, down, sun, carving.”
Fargas had a strange look on his face, as though he were examining her features for the first time.
“I’ve left Jason.”
Fargas’ roaming eyes met hers. “Really? That’s too bad.”
“You don’t have to be nice about it.”
“You want me to be angry?”
“And you came here.”
“I came here.”
“Well, there’s not much going on here,” he said. His face was in shadow and his eyes were like those of a shark—all pupil, passionless. “When did you leave him?”
“A few days ago.”
“And now you’re here?”
“I thought we covered that.” She searched his eyes. Finding nothing, she took his hand, opened it, and placed it on the underside of her breast.
Fargas stood up and leaned against the piano with his arms behind his back. A few notes sounded. He turned and shut the cover over the keys.
“What?” she asked.
“This isn’t just a friendly visit, is it?”
“No, it’s a very friendly visit.”
“And of all places, you came here.”
“You asked me to,” Maris said. She felt as though her stomach was sour, but tried to pretend she was fine.
Fargas crossed his arms. “That was over a year ago. Maybe two. That was ages.”
Maris winced. Now she really felt sick inside and wanted to run, get out of the house, kick him.
He pointed at the room. “Besides, as you can see, I have no space.”
“I came thousands of miles to see you,” she said, although the words did not ring as truly as she had believed they would.
Fargas walked into the kitchen. “You have any bags with you?”
“A duffel bag.”
“You can have my bed tonight, for however many hours are left,” he said. “I’ll sleep on the couch. Okay?”
Maris looked at the doorway to the kitchen. The odor of apple pie was gone, replaced by the faint odor of gas from the range, like some rotting tropical fruit. She heard him pouring water.
“Okay,” she said.
Fargas’ head appeared in the doorway. “I’m making some coffee,” he said. “You can tell me about the last couple years.” He attempted to crack a grin, but then pursed his lips.
Maris felt as though she should open the door and walk, just leave and see where the road took her. No destination could be worse than this. But the windows were black from the night, the kind of darkness she hadn’t seen for months, and which seemed to insist that she stay until morning.
“I’m dead tired,” Maris said. “Can the coffee wait till morning?”
“Sure,” Fargas said, walking out from the kitchen. “We’ll have a big breakfast.”
Maris entered the bedroom.
“Night,” she heard Fargas say, his voice closing, like the door, with a feeling of relief.
She could not understand Fargas’ lack of flirtation. She found no photos on the nightstand, no lover’s pose or smile on framed emulsion. Angrily, she slipped out of her clothes, unfastened her lace bra, and climbed into the cold bed. She lay on her stomach under the tight covers, the pillow engulfing her head and her breaths. The dark span of miles—between her presumptions on the Arctic Isle and this bed—yawned open like some new sea, the bed itself becoming an unsteerable raft. She didn’t know where north lay, nor south, but she knew no daylight clarity would convince her to return to the ship. She felt like flotsam.
She screamed into the pillow.
Empty, she drew her mouth to the side and took in air like a swimmer, wiping the drool from the crease between her lips before she went under again. And though she felt it the source of pain, the only comfort were her fallible fantasies. Held loosely in her mind, they seemed to gain some of their veracity. They formed like this: Fargas had not come home yet. He was unchanged, like the Fargas on the cruise ship, the Fargas who asked her to sing.
Jason ran through the gamut of techniques. He relaxed each muscle from toe to forehead, uncovered the trails of past dreams, even let his eyelids draw closed from their own weight. But he couldn’t fall asleep. He climbed out of bed and stood by the open window where rain was ending with a far off, falling away sound. If the rain could not lull him to sleep it was not worth continuing the attempt.
This first night in Mammoth Lakes, Jason felt unaccustomed to the sounds which entered the house, the hiss of a night breeze through the forest or the distant rumble of a fall of water. Mammoth Lakes lacked the noises aboard the Arctic Isle, the accustomed drone of the engine shivering through metal, or the parting water that mashed the sound of nature along the shore.
He flipped on the dresser light. A Time-Life book series with titles like The Trailblazers, The Loggers, and The Gunfighters sat sandwiched between bookends of miniature cowboy boots. Looking for something to occupy him, he opened one of the volumes and skimmed the photos. Grim-set men stood about giant felled redwoods. Their bodies were young, but their faces old, eyes like glass. A spooky uncertainty lingered in their poses, a distrust of the giant trunks ringed tight with thousands of years, as though a whale lay before them washed ashore far from Inuit knowledge.
Sepia glimpses of the past did not make Jason sleepy, but rather anxious and intrigued. He opened the closet door for greater distraction and there found sealed boxes stacked atop each other, along with some bags and a pile of old shoes.
He opened one bag and recognized the musty bite of sulfur tipped matches. The smell threw him back to his childhood, when he had made a collection of matches, liberally subsidized by Guy who brought back book after book from his business trips. Jason reached into the bag and brought out a handful of glossy packets. He threw Singapore’s The Ming Court Hotel back into the bag, then The Imperial in Tokyo, The Stardust in Vegas. The script and graphics were familiar, even though he hadn’t thought of them for so long. He remembered how, as a kid, these hotels, restaurants and casinos called him to visit, to slip a matchbook into his pocket to show he’d been someplace. The obfuscation of youth had kept from him what he now knew: that Guy hadn’t really seen the world, only the great lobbies of the world.
There were other matchbooks in his hand. 21 Steps to Success, Become a Mechanical Engineer! Be somebody, do something. Jason felt it was a ruse, the whole occupation thing. He was content with working the ship’s kitchen—as long as he was in a place he felt comfortable. And yet, he thought, he did at times wonder what position he could have held had he gone a different direction, through the turnstiles that others had wished.
He tasted his mouth. The freshness of the dessert wine from after dinner was gone, his tongue now heavy, dry and stale. He turned on the tap in the bathroom and fed his mouth handfuls of water. But he was still thirsty. He climbed the stairs to the kitchen, thinking what he’d thought the entire sleepless night. What would he do now that he was without Maris for awhile? He knew it was this: nothing. He wouldn’t change, wouldn’t take the initiative to go and be with her, and what he wished for most was that he didn’t know himself so well. Perhaps then some occupation or other life would draw him if there came a need. But for now, he thought, their lives were fine, certainly above average. In a year, they’d recoup the real estate lose. So what was wrong? It was this that kept him from sleep—was the silence between himself and Maris a forerunner to a need? He didn’t know if he was standing at the brink of a rift, or if he was toeing a meaningless line in the dirt.
There came the sound of broken Russian. Jason saw Guy with his ear cocked to the speaker of a shortwave radio, his fingers tuning out the squelch from a woman’s voice. A long piece of masking tape lay across the dial with blue ticks marking off stations. Russian turned to a garble, then cleared again. Guy looked up.
“Listen to this,” he said. “Radio Moscow.” Guy stood by the kitchen counter in his underwear. He had no rolls of fat, just one large belly with almost feminine hairs that caught the light. On the counter sat twisted scraps of aluminum, metal cutters, penny nails and tubes of adhesive. The stove flame was high.
“What are they saying?” Jason asked.
“I don’t know,” Guy said. “But think how far away it’s coming from.” He paused for a moment. “It’s the future there.”
With his eyes, Jason followed the antenna wire as it skirted the baseboard to the screen door. Oxford English rose out of the Russian as Guy turned the knob.
“BBC,” Guy said.
Jason stepped out onto the balcony, and with his eyes, traced the wire where it left the eaves to encircle the trunk of an aspen tree. The wire scraped against the guttering like bird feet as an announcer spoke about unrest in Africa.
Jason turned and took the cold can. “Thanks.”
“I always find a beer helps me sleep better,” Guy said, looking outside.
Jason nodded and followed Guy’s sweeping gaze, his eyes catching on a telescope in the corner, pointed into the night like a cannon. He followed Guy back toward the kitchen. A wagon wheel lay propped against the fireplace, over which a yoke hung by monstrous nails. A two man saw was mounted on the wall beside wrangling equipment, a branding iron, and photos of a ghost town. Jason moved past the chow triangle and back into the kitchen. The only light came from above the stove, throwing a sharp cast over these decorations and making Jason feel as though he were on the set of a Western still being dismantled and packed away.
The beer was cold going down and felt like a block of ice on his chest. The altitude still made his head airy and light.
“Here’s what you do when you retire.” Guy waved his hands over the aluminum cans, the stove, and the gold-colored results on the other side.
Jason picked up a tree and saw the snippets of brand names on the back.
Guy waved an aluminum sheet through the stove flame, checking its underside periodically. He turned off the gas and set the sheet on the counter.
“Are you set for your first flight in a Piper Cub?”
Jason nodded, although a flight in an old prop was the last thing he wanted to do. “Yeah,” he said, to spite his apprehension. “I’m ready.”
“Too much of boats?”
“I don’t know how you do it. I was in the Navy myself. Hated almost every minute of it. You can lose yourself being out at sea that long. You need a clear purpose to be out on water like that. Something like war or fishing. If you’re out there fishing, then you’re glad for the three-fifths water and for being on it. But we did nothing, really. Nothing to do but sail on it, drink it, piss it.”
“We do okay.”
“That’s right. I almost forgot,” Guy said. “I suppose it’s a hell of a lot different when you’re married.”
Jason thought of Maris as he swallowed the last of the beer. “Where’s the trash?” he asked.
“Here,” Guy said, taking the can. He shook out the last drops over the sink, then set it on the counter. “Want another?”
Jason remembered thinking that Guy had served in Korea, but now he wondered who was at fault for this belief: his own youthful exaggeration, or Guy’s endless embellishments? When Guy was older and the newness of fatherhood-by-marriage had worn thin, Jason had begun to dislike the way he acted, the insincerity which he threw around so sincerely, that cockiness with which he seemed able to cover any problem with a ready solution. These traits would appear like silhouettes in Jason’s thoughts, at which he could take a shot, quickly and without remorse. Now, though, he seemed paper thin.
Guy clicked off the shortwave. “Ready to give it another shot?” he asked, flipping off the kitchen light. “The beer should help you sleep.”
“Yeah,” Jason said, and walked back down to the guest room, to the covers still warm from his body heat, to the sound of a night without rain.
Not too many hours later, after a breakfast of pancakes and fruit, Jason found himself in the back seat of Guy’s Piper Cub as it rattled down the runway.
“How far can we go?” Jason shouted into the foam mic, trying to make himself understood over the drone from the prop.
“That depends. Originally, not far. A couple hours. But I got two Super Cub wing tanks installed so we can go a little longer. It’s got the original sixty-five horsepower air-cooled Continental, so it won’t get us much above sixty-five or seventy miles an hour.”
The jostling of the ground suddenly slipped away as the plane stepped up into a smooth lift. Jason found himself tilted back as the plane climbed.
Jason sat behind Guy, cramped on a canvas sling with the stick between his knees. A fire extinguisher was strapped to the floor. The canopy, including the roof, was glass. The wings were mounted high and painted the same dark green as everything else on the body, except for the fluorescent orange paint job on the throat, wing tips, and rudder. The cabin was cramped; Guy had entered like a contortionist long past his prime.
“I didn’t realize these things were so small,” Jason said.
He heard Guy chuckle in the earpiece. “They used this one in World War II for reconnaissance and flying couriers around. Imagine trying to fit inside with a uniform on. Especially in the winter. It’s an icebox with wings.”
The Cub finished its climb from the Mammoth Lakes airport and leveled out. To his left, Jason saw an endless stretch of mountains and valleys, some peaks still spotted with snow. To his right, the Sierras turned to hills, became treeless, and drew out toward the Nevada desert.
“Mind if I open the door?” Guy asked.
“They’ll be more room.”
The door was split horizontally into two trapezoids. Guy unlatched the bottom trapezoid and let it fold out, followed by his right knee.
A rush of air swept the inside of the cockpit and placed a cold hand over Jason’s forehead. He felt the sweat and wiped it. Outside lay the rest of the world, now flatter and more easily accessible, as though he and Guy were circling a model of the earth.
“Look on the side of the plane, past the door,” Guy said.
Jason stared below the window at a blue knob that controlled the throttle, a mirror knob of the one up front next to Guy. It was pulled forward, the word OPEN stenciled below the knob. “What about it?”
“You have to open the window more,” Guy said. “Stick out your arm and feel.”
Jason ran his hand against the sun-heated fuselage and felt several indentations. The wind pressed against his arm like a solid object.
“Bullet holes,” Jason heard in his headset.
Jason put his other hand on the inside of the fuselage, found the holes and was able to touch fingers. He was surprised by the thinness of the plane’s body.
“They don’t like me buzzing the golf course,” Guy said. “They’ve got a turret near the third hole just for me.” He laughed. “Actually, those were from the war. Ack ack ack ack ack.”
Jason wondered if someone had been in the back when the bullets went in.
“Devil’s Postpile is down there,” Guy said. “Let’s take a closer look.”
Jason saw the top of Mammoth Mountain, the pumice-colored volcano sloping steeply into a green-shadowed valley that rose again to a ridge of needle-sharp peaks. The engine gained another voice as the plane dove, the sound rising in pitch. Jason held onto the seat in front of him. For the first time, the plane’s angle let him see forward through the propeller’s haze to the forest below. He felt slightly sick and closed his eyes, hoping the feeling of the dive would reach a constant, a kind of metabolism between noise and fear. But the latter flashed images of the ground at his imagination. He opened his eyes as Guy pulled up. The ground below returned to a miniature state as Jason felt himself pressed down in his seat. However, he couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that the welds on the bottom of the plane could give way from his weight. Only a thin sheet of metal and some tubing lay between him and gravity. He imagined the seat belt crisscrossing his chest to be straps from a parachute as he looked up through the glass ceiling at the sun. Guy was laughing.
“Did you see it?” Guy asked.
“No,” Jason said, letting go of Guy’s seat and breathing mouthfuls of the cool air that pounded in through the open door and windows.
“You didn’t see it?”
“Wait, yeah, I saw it.”
“You doing all right back there?”
“Fine,” Jason said. “Where we headed now?”
“Bodie,” Guy said. “Ghost town. But we’ve got plenty of distance to have some fun. Take the stick.”
For the next twenty minutes, Jason learned the delicate art of flight, balance, and staying aloft. He flew across Mono Lake, paralleling the sudden flank of mountains that separated Yosemite from desert. The sun’s reflection flashed up from the ground, flickering as it passed through a stretch of marsh before disappearing into ancient lava flows. The fear that Jason had felt ebbed away. The fact that Guy had told him the plane could practically land anywhere, and the ease with which the plane responded to the controls, made Jason relax. The controls felt fluid, the air buoyant, like water. Jason understood how flying was a metamorphosis for Guy, a freedom from limps, from walking, the gait that made him look as though his left foot was stepping into pot holes. This was a chance to move about, soar, reach new heights, and, Jason thought, all those other aeronautical clichés.
“It’s a good plane,” Jason said, bringing the Cub a little lower over the hills of lava.
“Yeah,” Guy said. “It’s the most important thing I can do. At least once a week, or I’ll start cussing fluently. I don’t care if she’s not the most comfortable bird. I don’t leave slack between my hands and the stick. I absorb every shake. I feel it all, you know?”
The plane blew through a cloud of butterflies. The migrating insects smashed against the glass like bits of yellow paper, then, one by one, quivered and vanished.
“Yeah,” Jason said, bringing his fingers under a dazed butterfly that had landed on his knee. It moved its wings up and down, as though trying to keep balance. He cupped his hands around it and released it in the wind.
“You ever think,” Guy said, “that if you had a plane which could fly faster than the earth spins, you could keep a sunset going as long as you wanted?”
“You’d run out of gas.”
“Of course. But hypothetically.”
Jason imagined the sun stuck in the sky. “I suppose it’s possible.”
“You could make the sun set in the east if you flew faster. You could make the days go backward. I’d like to try that.”
Jason sensed Guy’s regret and felt uncomfortable listening to it. Since seeing Guy again, Jason couldn’t judge his fat lethargic fibs the same way he had before. He might still retain all the qualities which had brought irritation, but Jason now felt a pity for him. Listening to an old man’s regret was not easy. After working so long on the cruise ship, he had come to the conclusion that regret lay in so many of the old faces. Regrets for tedious lives that they hoped a cruise could remedy. Nothing changed from youth to old age except the wrinkle, the gray, the addition or subtraction of pounds. Partly, Jason knew he worked on the ship to escape a land-based lethargy; he wanted marriage without the house, he wanted a wife without the kids, he wanted comfort without stale familiarity. Guy’s regret, the regret of old age, was not one for a life lived poorly. Instead, Jason thought it was regret for being old and sensing a no-longer-distant cessation of unfulfillable dreaming.
Jason’s headset crackled and Guy’s voice spit into his ears. “Okay Jason. Soon you’re gonna want to begin pulling up.” His voice vibrated from the engine.
Jason pulled back on the stick, banking them away from the sun. As he did so, shadows of the wings swept quickly through the cabin, as though captured by time lapse photography.
“Which way?” Jason asked.
Guy jacked his thumb as they came over a rise, and there, below them in a valley among teal hills, Jason saw a scattering of sun-reddened buildings. Guy put his arm outside the window and pointed. The wind pulled back at his arm, moving it like a marionette’s limb.
“Bodie,” he said. “There’s the graveyard.”
Jason felt Guy take over the controls as they passed above abandoned boilers, flywheels, toppled windmills rusted black. From high above, they looked like watch parts. On the hills sat mounds of pale, exhumed earth from which small roads ran, like seams. To Jason, it seemed even gold could rust here.
The shadow of their plane traveled across a parking lot of RV roofs, over the cemetery and up a street, the shadow moving smoothly but then rippling, becoming squat as it climbed the slope to the stamping mill.
“There used to be more,” Guy said. “But it’s burned down so many times.” He pointed out several surviving wooden houses, some utilities poles and a brick building. “They ran the electricity into town here, straight as an arrow. They didn’t think they could bend electricity in those days.” He laughed. “I think that was where all the saloons were,” Guy continued. “It all burned, though. Some kid playing with matches.”
Jason tried to imagine the fire. He pictured all the bottles of drink adding little balls of flame to a long yellow burn, the air scented with smoke, whiskey and doom. Even high up in the plane, he thought he could detect the heavy odor of old wood. He imagined it must have been difficult for the people afterwards, their homes gone, or worse. No forests for miles, nothing with which to rebuild. Where to go? What to do?
“Seen enough?” Guy’s voice broke into Jason’s thoughts.
Jason’s fear of flying, abated by the absorbing presence of the ghost town, now returned as the wind began to pick up. In the gusts, the plane felt as though it were tethered and being reeled in by an anxious kite flier before an approaching storm.
“We going back the same way?” Jason asked.
With a turn and a push of wind, the Piper Cub climbed away from Bodie. Light flickered through the bullet holes in the plane’s side, alternating between flashes of black and tan. Through the window, Jason followed the Sierras as they rose, blue and massive, cast in shadow and casting them in turn. The umbras over the alluvial flatness bled into one another and reached a slow savory length.
The Piper Cub grew silent.
“Shit!” Guy shouted in the headset. Jason could hear his voice in the cockpit, too. “No no no.”
“What?” Jason asked. Looking through the glass in front of Guy, he understood. The propeller, which had been but a shimmer on the plane’s nose, seemed to reverse rotation for a moment before flipping back to its original direction, the flickering disc growing darker and then solidifying into one blade that spun slowly, like a pinwheel in a light breeze. Jason felt something like heartburn deep down in his throat.
Controlled by Guy up front, the blue throttle knob moved back and forth several times, making Jason feel as though a ghost were in his own seat. Then, suddenly, Jason relaxed. He remembered the dive over Devil’s Postpile.
“Haha,” he said. “Okay. You can start it up again.”
For the first time in the entire flight, Guy turned in his seat. The look of discomfort in his face brought back the tempo of Jason’s heart.
“Be my guest,” Guy said, gesturing out the open door. “Go flip the prop.”
“You’re kidding,” Jason said.
Guy stared at him a few seconds, then took off his headset, unfastened his belt and pointed at the stick between Jason’s knees.
“Yours,” he said, and began climbing out of the plane, the wind squeezing the slack out of Guy’s shirt and pants and pressing his hair into a thin smooth gray.
“No,” Jason said, a panic beginning to fill him.
Guy looked back, one arm gripping the frame of the door, the other reaching for the prop.
“Careful,” Jason shouted.
Guy flipped the prop several times. Jason lifted the plane so that the nose kept even with the horizon, but the stick only drew back so far.
“Press,” Guy shouted, pointing a spare finger in his grip to the choke button on the console in front.
Jason jumped forward but was held by his harness. Hurriedly, he unfastened the straps and leaned for the button. Again, Guy flipped the prop. The plane began to nose down, and Jason took the stick and tried to give the plane more lift, but the horizon rose. Guy swung back inside and grabbed the stick as the plane fell slowly into the mountain’s shadow, the light lapping around the windows, up along the wings, and then the light, too, was gone. Without the sun’s glare, the ground below seemed closer and sharp. Jason felt that this was his entire life, this moment. Everything else seemed a sweet dream, a pale illusion.
“We going to glide down?” Jason shouted. The wind dried his mouth in an instant and even though the wind was loud, the absence of the engine and propeller’s voice made Jason’s ears meet with an uncomfortable silence.
“Of course we’re going to glide down,” Guy shouted back.
“Didn’t you say you can land on a field?” Jason asked, having paged through Guy’s faults and hoping this particular boast would be nothing less than the truth.
“Let me know when you see one.”
The ground was composed of the remains of one solid flow of lava. Jason’s heart beat in huge gulps of blood as he looked down. He tried to calm his heart by slowing his breaths, sensing that they had only a limited amount of air, only a limited amount of good luck. He scoured below for a clearing, a stretch of flat ground to land on. There was only one thing far off, like a life line thrown across the ground. Interstate 395.
Jason grabbed Guy’s shoulder and pointed out the side window.
“Yeah,” Guy shouted. “We can make it.”
He banked the plane. The ground below flickered. Jason wished he sat in the front seat, wished Guy was back with the bullet holes, back where it was difficult to see what they were approaching and impossible to discern how he was going to come out of this.
The ground swept by like a river. Still thirty yards distant from the highway, the Piper began nosing down. Their speed seemed too slow for flight. The plane’s shadow jumped down off the hills, contorting and rushing toward them in an unavoidable collision.
“We’re not going to make it,” Guy shouted. “We’re short, we’re short. Brace yourself.”
“Pull up!” Jason shouted. Ahead, he could see that the highway turned sharply to the left and at a down grade. He grabbed the stick and pulled back until he thought it would snap. He felt more than his own strength in the effort; he felt Guy’s hand.
The descent felt slow, as though he were disembodied, his spirit counting out yards, calculating in feet. Seconds. Then the tires slammed into the shoulder of the highway and Jason’s teeth clenched. As he was pressed down into his sling seat, his ribs dropping a notch, he returned to the world of pain and speed. The Piper Cub bounced back up into the air, making him weightless for a moment before the tires hit the highway, first the left tire, then the other, making a sound like a squish toy. Tchoo. Tchoo.
Suddenly, Jason was back in the physics of being on the ground. He felt an unsteerable helplessness as the huge grill of a semi rushed toward them. The truck squealed as it braked out of its lane, one of its tires blowing out like a bomb, the others troubling up a billow of dirt from the shoulder. Gravel sprayed against the plane and then Jason felt the left wing catch the side of the passing truck, pivoting the plane one hundred and eighty degrees and slamming it against the semi. And then the semi was gone from his vision, gasping up the road into the dusk.
A frantic desire to get out of the plane came over Jason. So quickly did he punch out the door with his feet that it was only when he was standing outside in the dust that he remembered Guy.
He was still in front, his hands clenched and head bowed.
“Shit,” Guy said. His face was wet under his eyes.
Jason unfastened the belt to help him out. The instrument panel pressed against Guy’s knee.
“Jesus,” came a voice behind Jason. He turned to see the trucker, the door of his cab open behind him. Other cars were stopping.
“You all right?” the trucker asked.
“Help me get him out,” Jason said.
The trucker looked inside the plane. “Better let him sit there. He could have internal injuries. You shouldn’t move him. I called for help.”
“No,” Guy said. “It’s just the legs.” He moved in his seat. “And my arm.”
Jason put his hand on Guy’s shoulder. “We’re getting an ambulance,” he said.
“Shit,” Guy said. “I should have stuck to the avgas.” He turned to Jason. “You’ll be with us awhile, right? Help us move, would you. We gotta move out this weekend. Help us move.”
“You don’t have to move,” Jason said. He didn’t like Guy’s rambling, but also, he didn’t want him to stop talking. He was thinking of what the trucker had said: internal injuries.
“We’re getting you to a hospital,” the trucker said. “Hold on.”
Jason’s knees began shaking, and he felt an insistence on his bladder. The wrecked plane sat near a turn out, and Jason walked over the railing and down among the boulders. He looked out and could not remember having relieved himself in a more beautiful place. Below stretched the crystalline blue of Mono Lake still in full sun. The shore was lined with cream-colored stands of tufa, formations that seemed to creep out of the lake and into the surrounding green grass like stalagmites or mounds of melted coral. The wind was perfumed with the smell of brine. Gulls floated on the lake and they and the two islands further out didn’t just exist there; they felt carved on Jason’s eye. As he finished and turned, he felt the weight of his entire body on the underside of his feet, and it felt wonderful. He was alive. He worked on a cruise ship in Alaska. He was a married man.
A patrol car was parked beside the Piper Cub now, and an officer talked to Guy and the trucker. The red and blue lights atop the patrolman’s car swept across the rocks and the faces of people climbing out of their cars. Jason’s eyes looked at the light-painted lava on which they could have landed, the rocks which could have absorbed his life, and this realization made him feel like a ghost as he returned to the wreck, half embarrassed by the crowds. He was astonished that all the commotion was because of himself and Guy, also astonished at the cool efficiency with which the patrolman set out flares on both edges of the highway. The patrolman placed the last flare and walked back. For no reason, Jason waved. From high above came a helicopter’s whir, then a rhythmic pulse, and then, as the chopper descended, the night was filled with wind.
When he’d first seen Maris standing beside his piano, Fargas’ two lives, one on the Arctic Isle and the other in Julian, smacked together with the incongruity of dreams and consciousness. He was dazed by her unexpected presence, and for a moment forgot that he had driven up from the piano store by the coast, forgetting even the image of the lone headlight or the woman and her Steinway. Before he knew it, Maris was beside him on his couch, pressing his hand upon her like welcome desire. But then his life in Julian returned to him: June and her smaller breasts, the work he had built for himself from the house’s disrepair, the stretch of time since he had last seen Maris. Regaining his perspective, Maris became the distant visitor whose eyes appeared framed by dark rings, her skin sunless, her body older by a few years but larger by ten.
That had been over an hour ago. Through the darkness, Fargas could hear Maris breathing in his bedroom. What a fiasco, he thought, hitting his leg with his fist, his arm moving through the air and making him notice the cold for the first time. He had not meant to sound equally cold and bruising that evening, even though he felt angered by Maris’ arrival. She said she’d come because he’d asked her to, but how could she be so naive—no, stupid—to think life stayed stagnant with guarantees? To throw away a marriage, because of him?
Fargas closed his eyes and tried to sleep. He told himself his feelings for her had changed because he had changed. In his mind he imagined the cellular death and rebirth that replaced his being every so many years. Even now, he was beginning to lose the sensation of the couch beneath his feet and legs, as though he was already being replaced with cells still learning the difference between weight and pain. He interpreted his changed emotions toward her as a part of this replacement. He had to admit, though, that this numbing of his feelings had taken some time, like the healing of a scar which, although permanent, becomes dulled with every year. Since Maris had married, he had nearly forgotten what caused those rare shots of pain and no longer bothered to trace their outline on his being. Instead, he tuned pianos and gave lessons, he practiced and wrote music, he was now even repairing the cracked chimney. Work was the thing.
And then she sighed.
The air from Maris’ lungs stayed in the other room, but the throaty linger in his ear brought Fargas from his rationalizations. He stumbled off the couch, feeling a somnambulant temptation. Instead, he grabbed a pillow and crouched beneath the grand piano, where he stretched himself fully on the carpet. He shut his eyes. What could they have in common, he thought? He felt like the father of his past self: wiser and restrained, but also melancholic with the knowledge that younger joys are gone forever. He felt sorry for Maris and for her not knowing what she wanted, or rather knowing but changing her mind—what seemed an authoritativeless vacillation of certainty and new wants. Maybe she, too, needed work.
What did time teach him that he hadn’t known back on the cruise ship? He knew the comfortable confinement of small town life and its borders. Knew also why he had put himself here. To forget, to rebuild, to find. True, he knew that nothing was real or lasting; even love, hope or memory were momentary descriptions of actions he knew no deeper word for. Worse yet, he often failed to recognize that he existed, feeling instead like some amalgam of hungers and words which expressed itself, thought-fitting, in the language he had never invented. The lone headlights that followed him were absurd reminders that nothing was as normal as it had once seemed. But though he felt no vast happiness could stretch across his life again, there were moments of love, moments of work, moments of welcome exhaustion to numb him. These things stretched a gauze over his waking hours so that life was tolerable and sometimes worthwhile. When he looked at himself through the eyes of others, he could see the fringe of lunacy around his way of perceiving. How the expansion and contraction of a sleeping dog’s chest, or the shadow in the pit of a woman’s neck, or the vanilla smell deep in tree bark could be so beautiful, whole and enormous, an existence as important as a religion or the path of a planet or anything he could ever think, say, or accomplish. Could he tell Maris this?
Since he’d left the ship, he’d never thought his life could pick up where he’d left off with Maris. The possibility that it could, were he only to slide from underneath the piano and go to her, felt like some deceit in a carnival game; it seemed possible, but he knew it was too easy. He wished she had come in the morning daylight, when darkness didn’t focus and clarify his thoughts; mornings, when he drove out of town to work, thinking: this is real, this town, and I love it here, and I love June.
He heard a distant kick of gravel under a car’s tires that faded back into the night, perhaps someone coming home late, very late, or another trying to find a bed and breakfast after a misjudged drive from somewhere far away. Someone dead-tired, thoughtless, and waiting for animal sleep.
Fargas opened his eyes. On the underside of the piano, support beams carried the weight of the metal and wood. Taped to the beams were photos he had taken aboard the Arctic Isle, snapshots of another life, of ice and water and Maris. He reached and pulled one down. In that gesture, all the hot summer days came back to him—his first half year in Julian, lying under the protection of the piano staring at the photos, commiserating like some transferred schoolboy. He had forgotten that period.
In the photo in his hands, Maris stood aboard the ship. She looked at an out of focus gull sitting on the railing beside her. Was she mindlessly posing? Or, deep in the folds of her thinking tissue, did the gull perch and shiver, did it rub its beak against the rail as though to sharpen it, did it, for that moment, live? In the dim light speckled across the photo, the sea gull on the handrail was enormous, several times the size of Maris’ head. It looked to be eighty pounds or more. This seemed possible. Fargas felt a headache pulsing in his temple, the blood pumping in and in, and he closed his eyes hoping the memories would pump out and that scale would reestablish itself over the thoughts and objects that ran amuck in his head.
Maris. The world she saw—or posed in—lifted the corners of her lips in a delicious smile. She had Opportunity at the door with raw knuckles: she’d received a grant to study at an art school, had expenses paid in a two month study in Japan learning to carve in the medium of ice, and now she was traveling from one sea to another. Her wardrobe was filled with the extreme of a parka at one end and a bikini at the other. That smile of hers helped Fargas detour grave days of ship-bound brooding about his discontentment with where he found himself, made him even see the ship as the exotic locale it had seemed when he’d started working there.
She created her own creatures, carving swans in the space of a song, bear cubs licked into shape with the tongue of a hot iron and encouraged upright under the aid of a long-handled chisel. They’d had something between them before she was married, there in the ice freezer among that menagerie—and afterwards, what talk. He’d unfolded his imprecise thoughts to her, revealing, (at long last) the state of his soul, overlapped, misaligned and misshapen like some failed origami attempt at hope. He’d groped for the words to tell her about himself with one hand as the other retreated, hesitant at what shape would balloon from the pull between the neck and tail of his thoughts. Crane, Frog, or Hippopotamus. She will think you are crazy.
And then, the unexpected. She knew. She too went through her days with paper-thin hope. “Yes,” she’d said. “It’s horrible when you think about it. We’ll be gone.” But she had said it on the verge of a laugh, in that easy thoughtless way with the language not her own but hers to use.
On his late night shifts playing in the lounge, he felt so happy with the knowledge that she existed on this same vessel as himself. Really nothing would change, but absurdly, he felt a kind of immortality with her. When she had agreed with him, when he had validated her knowledge by the sad sheen of her gaze out across the bay to the calving bergs breaking from a glacier, he’d almost felt like closing his hand over her mouth, wishing she would not only disagree with his world view, but repudiate it so that he could instill a tilt of doubt in the clear and straight perspective which he had lived with for several years. But no, she had agreed with him, commiserating in the ultimate sorrow, and he had snatched her to every cell of his mind, like love in a death camp.
It was several nights after he had snapped the picture that she walked into the lounge. He was playing Gershwin. The time was a long fall after midnight and although there was no one else in the room, he’d continued to play, anticipating just such a moment: empty lounge, Maris walking in. Her feet were low-heeled, her hips concealed yet called to attention by a black skirt, and from the waist up, she wore a water-speckled sweater that concealed her shape about as well as a burial mound in a flat field—and how much he wanted to bury himself there. At night she could satiate his sleep, during the day he could know the placelessness of cruising up and down the Alaskan coast and not feel left behind. Further, he’d convinced himself that contentment was not an aspiration nor a show of humility, but a quick and fragile glimpse of timelessness, the kind she revealed in the quality of her laugh; what laugh like that could ever be hushed? He was filled with expectation as he chatted with her about a trickle of trivial events.
“Come on,” Fargas said. They’d moved to the piano in the lounge after a couple drinks. “Sing something,” he said, lifting a lock of her hair, his eyes jumping about on her sweater, from one damp spot to another, the wet shadows of melted ice chips.
Maris leaned into the waist of the piano, then lifted herself up onto the grand. To his opening cliché of chords and arpeggios, she began to sing in a voice like wet velvet—a surprise, always, when he heard it. He let her lead. The fixed spotlight played off her body, stretched out now across the closed lid, the light making bright star points in the deep petroleum-blue lacquer. Her skirt ran up as she turned once more, the tattoo of a heart and a chisel around her ankle showing through her pantyhose like a half-communist bruise. Her legs ran up into a beautiful shady swell.
Putting feeling into the eighty-eight keys, playing in a drunken late night dream, Fargas imagined life with this good-looking, talented woman who sang in the voice he could feel, literally. Every note she held vibrated within his own chest like a faint hum.
He’d been thinking of moving to Julian, and there he envisioned a life for the two of them. They could talk about the realities of life, each skipping any hors d’oeuvre of chatter—instead, a talk of art, music—perhaps not even talking but instead walking together on cold February nights, then back to a bed of comfort and union.
Maris slipped off the lid and slid beside Fargas, improvising on the upper keys while he laid the rhythm.
“This piano needs tuning,” he said, then looked at the back of her ear as he told her the great oxymoron of piano tuning: that due to the way the strings vibrate, the three that lie behind each note have to be slightly out of tune for the sound to be pleasant to the ear.
“To make them all equal creates dissonance and a beat pattern in the sound. For some lower strings,” and here he let his left hand sweep down the register in a glissando, “It’s impossible to avoid dissonance. Some of the old composers wrote pieces using only those notes which could be tuned without dissonance.”
“Who cares about dissonance,” Maris said.
“Not me. I’m just saying.”
“Yes, you are.”
Fargas put his hand over hers and made her fingers play while he described the intricacies of the action: the way the most delicate touch sends the lever body heel against the lever jack, instantaneously setting thirty-five parts into precise motions for each key—all silent, all unseen.
“There’s the butt cushion, the butt flange and the escapement dolly.”
Maris laughed, and in her laugh Fargas detected who she was forgetting at this moment—Jason, down below. He was erasing him from her world with his words. He slid back the top of the piano’s music stand and continued with an amnesia of parts. Maris gathered up her legs, rose to her knees and leaned to look at the exposed mechanism. Thin web-like strands from her sweater had caught on the buttons of his shirt, dragging his cuff on an invisible thread that then snapped, dropping the pinch of material.
“Here,” Fargas said, pointing and tracing his words. “The damper felt presses against the tight wind of string, lifting off just before the hammer sets the strings vibrating.”
“You’re making this up,” Maris said.
“No. It’s the truth. I took a class in piano tuning.” He played a few notes. “Look.” He pointed where the felt tip of the hammer lay below the strings’ shadows. “I can vibrate the strings again without bringing the key all the way up, thanks to the repetition rail regulating screw.” Here he did a one note trill and then stopped. “Finally, all the action hinges on the grand set-off screw.”
“You’re nasty,” Maris said. She thrummed a string and he held down the damper pedal to let it last.
“It’s a nice country,” Fargas said, when he could hear nothing. “I can rent it from my father pretty cheaply, I’m sure. There’s plenty of room.”
Maris looked up, her quick smile almost a twitch.
“You’ve seen the Panama Canal already,” he said. “I’ve seen the Panama Canal already.”
“I’ve got saltwater in my veins.”
“Be selfish,” he said, taking one of her hands. Piano strings had made short red furrows in the soft tips. “Maybe it’s time to detox,” he said.
“You have some medicine?”
“Sure,” he said, smiling. But he also abhorred how their talk was regretfully slipping into the equivalent of a tickling feather. How could he cut through this face of humor if it was this profile she liked? He stopped himself nonetheless, not wanting the crass, heavy, even frivolous words to fill the moment and obscure his intentions. He felt it was too often like this; his jokes and her flirtatious banter stepping in at serious moments, like talking to a medic about a game at the scene of an accident he’d once stumbled upon, chatting to release something, not the right words, but at least a few over-pressured syllables, the kind of talk that feels at home when the outcome of the moment is unknown, ungraspable, where the conversation can go on and on, but each word leaves as though off a foreign tongue—easily forgotten, valued only for filling the silence.
Fargas looked at the windows that hushed the night. Gone were the mountain of trees, the dark granite and basalt islands and the water. Instead, their reflections, his and hers and the grand piano, glowed in the distant glass.
“I’m getting married,” Maris said.
He looked at her face, the bags under her eyes, the oriental blackness of her hair.
“He asked you?”
“Not for the first time.”
“When?” he asked, as though it made a difference.
“Your not...” he said, looking at the elastic of her skirt to finish his words.
“Well,” he said, and looked at the windows again, keeping his eyes there because he did not want to meet the stare Maris had implanted from the side, like a dead kiss. There, in the glass, they were holding hands, like lovers with a future or without thoughts of future’s sidesteps and fakes.
“You’re putting me on,” he smiled and poured himself into her wide pupils, searching her intentions. She extricated her small fingers and placed his hand on his knee. It felt to Fargas as though she were arranging it.
“You and him,” he said, although hadn’t he known this all along? He admonished himself for letting their shallow flirt at a relationship become tragic and huge. His desire for her, coupled with his awareness of how much of the future he had gambled on her numbers, filled him with a confusing mix of want and self-admonition.
Maris stood and kissed his cheek, said goodnight, and locked the flutter of his thoughts one by one, like a slot machine. Her gait, as she walked toward the elevators, was heavier in one foot, which she slapped as though it were asleep.
Fargas’ fingers broke into some slow mournful blues, accompanying an unsung, unplayed, unknown melody, but one that he or anyone could drop in, like that. Then he stopped, spying himself in the windows’ reflection like some romantic.
Immediately, he felt like descending after her and telling Jason what a fine fuck on ice she’d been, and on that topic, what did she take him for? Some last field to sow her oats before meeting monogamy at the altar? And, less selfishly, was this any way to treat Jason?
Fargas left the piano, crossed the empty lounge, and approached the march of his own reflection in the glass. Not a soul stepped between to intervene, or to make a concerned cough. It was as though everyone had debarked and left him in this empty hull. He touched the hands of his reflection on the glass, looked at his knitted brow and at the piano behind him. It suddenly felt a huge element in his life, like property or an inheritance. He cupped his hands around his face’s reflection and peered into a world of Van Gogh night, behemoth islands that took out stars, stars that bobbed just below the surface of the water like bright metallic baits. He felt the landscape repudiate his troubles, his late night thinking of life and its brevity, love’s slow twists in this dwindle of sand that ran, unlike in an hourglass, into the wild grain-catching storm of the unknown and forever unknowable. Unlike these bloated unphraseable thoughts, everything outside the ship was real. Cold, wet submergence, dry airiness, not a matrix of gray matter conspiring to lead him down some dead end alley of frustration. Fargas let the slow, languorous passing of water and island under the fastened stars drain him, turn him nameless, as though into a mirror of subjectless reflection. He held himself there until his shielding hands grew stiff. He thrust them into his pockets.
Immediately, the outside vanished, flooded with glare from the ship. From somewhere came the moving breaths of vacuum cleaners emptying the footprints in the carpet.
He left the lounge, found the nearest elevator, and waited for the doors to admit him. At the periphery of his vision, sleep shimmered in transparent blue. He stepped inside an empty lift and tapped the button for the bottommost level, Harmony, where the employees, sans captain and his circle, had their rooms. Hell, the employees rechristened it. In all, there were nine decks: Sun, Fjord, Landmark, Promenade, Holiday, Terrace, Gallery, Lyric, and the aforementioned Harmony. Fargas recalled the names as the elevator descended past each, lowering him deeper, now past the water line. Part of every new crew member’s initiation included learning a jingle from the training staff to remember the levels. Such Fun! Let’s Please Help The Guests Laugh Heartily, followed by a forest of exclamation points, like ballast. As the elevator stopped at Harmony, Fargas remembered telling Maris the alternative jingle, a change to the mnemonic phrase that, the first time he’d heard it, went straight to memory. Single Fat Lusty Pigs Hoping To Get Laid Here.
Stepping into the hallway, Fargas chided himself. What kind of words were those? What meaningless dust of syllables, when really he should have been telling Maris how that first night he met her he couldn’t sleep at all. He played sloppily the next day and told someone who’d made a request for a song to can it, then went back to his cabin early because of that, told to sleep. But instead, he had walked miles on the ship hoping he’d bump into her. He should have told her real feelings, not some jabber of mnemonic phrase that was a compression of nothing.
The loss of the possessive moment he felt, walking the narrow and vacant hallway, key in hand, was like a cheap liquor aching even to the alveoli of his lungs.Once inside his own cabin, he couldn’t sleep, his fingers tingled. That was to be the same night of the fire. The alarms jostled him from his sleepless pause. He remembered the air smelling like the mountains: dry and smoky like a high altitude stretch of ridge a week after a quick burn. His fingers dredged the floor for his shoes. He put them on hurriedly to the sound of voices outside. In the hallway he could see nothing unusual beyond the sleepy eyed faces that moved quickly to the stairwells. He saw Maris and waved and she waved backed. He saw Jason with her for a moment before the two disappeared up the stairs.
The siren was muted in the stairwell, gathering its shrill voice for a full alarm on each floor Fargas climbed up, making his way amid crew and passengers. Some wore life jackets, some even inflated, making these passengers awkward and large on the stairs. Fargas’ tired heart thumped in his chest. Under his fingers, he felt the shape of a Bach Toccata, like Braille, trying to calm his thought of where, exactly, the water line lay. Halfway up, there wasn’t a detectable odor except that of the passengers: musty sleep, worn out perfume, gas from dinner. On the top deck, no urgent smell greeted him, only the salted breeze preserving the innocuous stars. The deck lights were on and the string of ornamental bulbs slung from bow to stern like artificial dew. Everyone milled about, as in a drill, and then watched the flash of a boat approach, a coast guard vessel that shined a spotlight on the ship, illuminating, for the first time, a thin creeping column of smoke rising from one side.
Fargas remembered three hours of waiting on the deck. He comforted the passengers and passed out cups of coffee as the coast guard helped fight a small laundry room fire that had spread into a few cabins and stubbornly smoked. Eventually, passengers began removing their life vests, pressing the yellow packages of air against their chests and pinching the nozzle to deflate them, some trampling them on the ground with their feet, the entire deck like one trembling sigh of relief.
Fargas looked east, toward continental darkness, here and there a house light vanishing like a low star on the horizon. Within him, a heavy sadness, like an anchor with its line cut, slumped and rested against his chest. More than anything, he felt the need for Maris, to comfort both her and himself and take the night’s excitement as a milestone of surviving, of feeling fortunate. Being able to say, “It could have been much worse for us,” which means, “we could have been goners.” Instead, he was alone. Even among a thousand passengers with no thoughts of going back to their cabins, he was solitary.
In the lounge, drinks were on the house, and he weaseled in for an enormous shot of cognac. He took the drink to the piano and began playing a rendition of On Top Of Old Smokey to bring some lightheartedness to the passengers. They had gone from fright to dis-ease and now, perhaps without the drinks and music, would go headlong into upset. Then, whispered into his ear from the bartender, he learned that three crew members with cabins adjoining the laundry room had died in the fire, and so he stopped playing Old Smokey, whispered commiseration back, and pretended to take the conversation as a request in the passenger’s eyes, turning his fingers to Summertime, which it almost wasn’t anymore, but which, like a lot of things, he wished were only beginning.
And now it was many seasons later and he was no longer alone. Maris was back like a piece of music he had forgotten but which had returned suddenly; the familiarity was with him but with gaps of awkwardness. What fits here? What are my hands to do?
He’d spent the first two months in Julian fixing the house, giving piano lessons and tuning pianos—all activities which he still carried out but which were now the sum of who he was and not the role of distraction he had needed them to be in the beginning. He’d come to understand Maris’ decision, realizing that two repressed melancholiacs such as themselves, living without gauze, aware and sharp, could never help to alleviate the other. What she needed, and he too, were distractions, so that late at night, when he stepped from the skin of his being and looked back at its translucency, clutching for the light switch with “Oh Fuck,” in his throat like a clot, he could have someone to lie to, to bottle his awareness and call it a nightmare and let fingers comb his hair and ease him into sleep, like June. Understanding or commiseration would have been no help at all.
June was the woman he was seeing in the town of Ramona, and whose daughter he gave lessons to each Thursday evening, after which he and June would sometimes catch the eight o’clock movie, sometimes no matter what was playing at the theater. June was a year older and had been married once, but for only eleven months so long ago that the only memory was her daughter.
A carpet of night air grew deep along the floor and Fargas slid out from under the piano and sat on the couch, only his feet still lingering in the cold shag. The piano lid was shut and dimly reflected the window curtains which caught the night’s glow. A dark drapery of house plants fell over the side of the instrument and onto a small bookshelf atop which lay the white ghostlike sheets of music and the more mysterious and cream-colored scores on which his own hand had written scraps of melody, here and there full-blown passages of intricacy, elsewhere lone voices ringing on unplowed silence. Writing music was something he did not do often enough, only in the drop-dead silence of a weekend morning, else in the edges of dreams from which he’d stumble to the piano, one awakened hand scribbling music, the other, half asleep and still dreaming, playing the notes. No one had heard his music except perhaps a neighbor, and of course June and her daughter.
Fargas felt he and June’s daughter, Megan, got along well. She was not without talent, and practiced, although he figured her improvements came more out of her mother’s desire than her own interest. Since meeting June the previous November at a Friends of the Julian Library Wine Tasting, Fargas had worked on the house with more interest, his yet unspoken plan to have June and her daughter move in with him almost feeling like his initial reason for wanting to improve the building. Some days, when her daughter was in school, June would drive to his place—he’d call a couple lesson’s worth of parents and say he was unable to hold lessons but would double up the following week. He’d prescribe, in the meantime, finger exercises fourteen or eighteen or twenty-five in the Hammond book, whatever number popped into his head as June stood behind him, running her hands up under his shirt and across his belly. June grew her fingernails long.
But in the light from the evening, Fargas couldn’t help but picture Maris on the piano in place of the plants, books, and TV. There she was again, turning in velvet twists, her fingers running dustless lines across the lacquer, her eyes so wet, one would think she’d slip into sobbing were it not for her smile.
He heard her turn in his bedding and instantly his eyes remembered calves, breasts, the lie of her dark hair on newly starched pillowcases. He stood and looked out the window, throwing the curtains over his shoulders like a photographer’s cape.
The fog he’d seen on his drive up from the piano store—conspiring in the gorges, testing the ridges in its way—now pressed against the glass. The dim white of the propane tank in the yard appeared. Not far away, Fargas saw the trunk of the oak tree condensing briefly in a wraith-like column of bark before falling away in the cataract of fog.
Just last week with June, he’d felt her sleeping beside him and thought how it would be to have a son, and how, on this trampoline of thought and desire, he could land the outcome of kids and grandkids—to bring something from nothing but will and desire. A strangely finished and mature sense of fatherhood had come, and in that night’s dream he was married and fed a baby who had the same color hair as her mother.
The fog thickened and erased. Fargas caught himself feeling that nothing existed but himself and Maris. All his plans seemed dream-like and conceived in another world. He opened the front door and walked into the fog.
The cool mist collected on his cheek’s stubble and stung his eyes, which he blinked occasionally, wiping the fog from his eyelashes as he moved toward the glow of the lights on Main Street. As he walked, the geography laid itself around him, the town on a hill that climbed the other direction to Volcan Mountain and sat at the northern end of the Cuyamaca range. The more he walked through the fog, the more unnerved he became that these place names might not reference anything.
Once, he had liked conflict and the task of practice and problem solving, of emotional fluttering and the great potential lying in the bed that was uncertainty. But since coming from the cruise ship, he’d felt a kind of old-age weariness for this ritual which, before, he had called life. “What does she want from me that wasn’t available when we were there, in the lounge of Alaska?” he thought to himself. “How can I be comfort?”
He heard a purr down the road. A single plate of light focused as it grew closer and closer, and he stared at it as though in a face-off. At the last moment, he stepped off the road to let the single headlight on a car pass. But instead, the thinner voice of a motorcycle broke through the mist, passing him unaware and tunneling behind him with a singular, miner’s-like, light.
He walked on. All the problems played with him, the old fingers of regret, being and place, happiness, legacy, and it was with something as deep as relief, but with still a hesitation, that he felt on seeing Main Street before him in a clearing of fog. He wanted it to be midday, injected with tourists, bustling with distraction, his day tiered with lessons and pianos to tune.
Standing under the Apple Days banner that hung from one dark storefront facade to another, he had one conclusion and it was that he should not let pass this period of slow-forming happiness with June.
He walked slowly down the street, past the Pie Company, the Julian Cafe & Bakery. Bills posted on the lampposts advertised the melodrama shows playing every weekend throughout this month of October. A villain with a bristling moustache looked out, his hands rolled in a conniving ball. Then Fargas felt his life to be a connivance for happiness’ sake, when really, to again hold Maris on the piano in a midnight sun’s glow, would feel somehow his real life, instant joy.
At the post office, the town’s Main Street gave out and the fog thickened into trick facades. He turned and saw practically the whole town before him. The banner slung over the street with its words reading backwards, and he began pacing the way he’d come, the sick feeling of affection in his gut expressing what he knew was true: he loved Maris still and to turn her away now would, could, leave him with a life of regret. “Imagine,” he thought, breaking into a jog, “Me and Maris. Yesterday history, tonight...”
Ahead, he saw the column of a person darken the lighter backdrop of mist.
“Maris,” he shouted, a bag at her side now evident, her arms bare and glowing.
“I’m sorry,” she said when he had reached her. The smell of cold apple filler hung in the air, the fog moving around the black stove pipes of the Pie Company like baking steam.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“A hotel. A motel. I’m leaving tomorrow.”
Fargas took off his jacket and tried to put it over Maris’ shoulders.
“No, I’m going. It was stupid of me to come here.”
“There’s no place open,” he said. “This is not a Motel 6 town.” The chill of the air now rubbed against him, stirring a head ache.
He saw her peer down the street, then she took the jacket.
“Do you still have to leave?” he asked. The breath from her mouth partly concealed her face, and Fargas waited for it to drift away.
“Maybe not tonight.”
“I might. Or not.”
Fargas leaned through the mist and kissed her. The sudden warmth of her against his cold face surprised him and lifted the ache from his forehead. She held him for a moment so he couldn’t breathe.
Fargas picked up her bag and they both started up the hill toward the house, his arm around his own jacket, slack and wrinkled on her shoulders.
“I called Jason,” Maris said. “I told him I was leaving him.”
He smiled at her instinct until she, too, began to grin. Finally, she aired her lungs with a laugh. The old look returned to her face, mystery, desire, and she began running, pulling him, and then he was sprinting. At his feet, large moths broke from the grass and flitted like dust. He outpaced her in a dash through the fog to the house and into its dry darkness, the sheets engrossed with the warmth of her body, and then her body lying there again, and the time between this lovemaking and the past one forgotten and everything but pleasure forgotten.
Until the next morning, a weekend, dry and clear. A millimeter from her skin, Fargas traced his fingers along Maris’ bare sides. She was more shapely to his eyes than his hands and filled him with early morning desire. He moved into the other room and opened the window, feeling the warm breeze in the hair around his slow arousal. He turned and there, on the piano keys, he spotted a note signed by Maris. The twisted coil of the telephone cord dangled over the paper. Something from the night before, an unneeded apology in an inelegant script, after which Maris had written: “News from Jason in Mammoth Lakes. Your father in plane crash. O.K. Your parents moving to Julian soon. Gas.”
Dumbfounded and slack, Fargas carried the note back into the bedroom. Behind him, borne through the window on the air, he heard the sound of an audience collectively hissing, then an airy sigh, followed lastly, as he turned into the bedroom, by a great musical boo.
Maris stirred. “What’s that?”
“Vaudeville,” Fargas said, the world feeling quixotic again. He thought of his father Guy and his house and then this house. And then the last feeling he had expected entered him as he looked at Maris leaning against the headboard, her breasts widely spaced, her hair black and magnetic. He felt a heart-flutter of guilt.
A joyless line, like a fire brigade’s.
Sandra carried box after packed box, walking down the steps to the lawn where she handed them off to Jason. A group of graduate students were huddled at the far end of their property, examining the instruments whose meters showed fever. She noticed Jason watching them, his head turned. He was dressed in long sleeves, but still, at the turned neck, she could see the white bandaging that covered lacerations from the crash.
Thank God, she thought—even though they were moving back to Julian, the life she’d left so long ago. Thank God they’re all right. Her nightmares had dug up the scenario of being alone, alone and having to move. She would have forbidden Guy flying the plane again were the Piper Cub still able. He was not just playing with his own life and Jason’s, but hers as well. She doubted she could have gone on.
She handed a box to Jason. “Just the lamps left, now,” she said, her eyes following her son across the lawn, through invisible streams of carbon dioxide. His sandaled tracks slopped across the grass, still wet from rain the night before. He paused near the graduate students and said something that made them break from their huddle and laugh. The box of last minute discoveries, light and filled mostly with air, left Jason’s hands and rose into Guy’s. Guy stood in the open back of a U-haul. The side of the truck was painted with images representing Kentucky: goldenrods, a cardinal and squirrel, the Bluegrass mountains. She wondered who, perhaps just days ago, had left all that for the eastern Sierras, for poppy and bear and volcano.
She looked again at Guy. The bandage above his right eye made his face look helpless and at a loss, like Laurel from Laurel and Hardy. Guy put down the box and walked slowly down the metal ramp, his knee brace tanner than the pale oval of knee that showed through. She turned and walked back through the door.
Inside the sudden spaciousness of the house, nothing remained except for a few lamps, a couch, a table and the golden ghost town. Things they hadn’t thought to bring with them. Sandra hadn’t touched the model and Guy hadn’t packed it either. All else was in the U-haul or in storage, even the wagon wheel which they’d rolled down the stairs and across the lawn, loose grass sticking to the iron band and turning the wood dark and sinewy, like meat. The idea that they were not taking a few elemental pieces of furniture helped Sandra feel that one day soon they could come back, sweep up the wait of dust, rehang the paintings and watch the gondolas from the balcony. The alternative, that this area, like the one out by Horseshoe Lake and other places around Mammoth Mountain’s base, would slowly die—plants, trees, the soil itself—was heart breaking. She didn’t want her home to become a structure in a ghost town, like Bodie. She couldn’t imagine that the stream she heard running on summer nights would splash through grassless fields and treeless forests. Another possibility, that the top of the mountain could blow, was so jarring as to be nearly incomprehensible to her.
“Okay, then,” Guy said, tramping arrhythmically up the stairs. “That it?”
“I think so,” Jason said.
Sandra looked about. “I’m going to miss this place,” she said. “I’ve grown fond.”
“She’s been good,” Guy said, slapping a lathe-turned balustrade, then gripping it and push-pulling, as though to test its firmness and fit.
“We eat lunch and then go?” Jason asked.
“Somebody’s anxious,” Sandra said. Jason’s rushed mood had begun earlier in the week with a call from Maris, and since then he’d seemed even more distant. She’d asked him about Maris, but his favorite word in that conversation had been “fine.” She wished he meant it in the sense of bone china or a young thing, not with the nothingness that came out, as though exhausted, on the sighing “f.”
“I still have a few things to pack,” Guy said, moving a few steps up the stairs, then stopping and turning. “Why don’t you two head down to Julian and I’ll follow in a little while in the car.”
“We can wait,” Sandra said.
“We’ll have to leave soon if we’re going to make it today,” Jason said. Looking at Sandra, he added, “Before it gets dark.”
“We’ll finish together and then go,” Sandra said.
“No,” Guy answered. “Just take your time down. Maybe I’ll catch up and beat you there. Really.”
Sandra looked at his wrinkled face, focusing on the watery blue of his eyes that grew yellow in the white’s, like jaundice. “You certain?”
“Of course. We have to take both the car and U-haul.” Guy put his hand on Jason’s shoulder. “Jason, you drive.”
“Sure,” Jason answered. “We’ll see you there.”
And scarcely five minutes later, Sandra and Jason were sitting high in the U-haul, leaving. Guy patted the door as Jason backed out.
Sandra rolled down her window. “Wait.” She reached in her bag for her camera and filled the viewfinder with the house, the aspens out front, the no-longer-in-full-bloom pansies, the windows like mirrors. Guy waved as he limped back to the house, and then she saw their lone car parked out front, the greater trees, other homes. She couldn’t remember if she’d snapped a shot.
The roadway paralleled the stream that had often lulled her to sleep at night when nothing else would, and she wondered what, now, could replace it. The road left the water and a vista opened of the golf courses and the distant flatland and desert. In her mind, she felt as though she were watching an 8mm film. In the McDonalds at the eastern edge of town, she hardly had the stomach for her burger and rewrapped it, setting it on Jason’s tray. Right now, she kept thinking, we could turn around and look again at the stream, the trees, the house.
The day became a scorcher. The still chill of mountain nights had warmed on the slope down to Crowly Lake and continued down Interstate 395 to Bishop in a hot breeze. The U-haul swung south through ancient flows of basalt where waterfalls of heat splashed on the straight two-way blacktop and on the scrub grass and the siesta of tumble weed. Half-carcasses of rubber-drowned road kills spotted the ground. Thin slivers of lakes, blue as dye, flattened against the straight gouge of rising basalt. The tan and black rock was impenetrable, showing a fifty-foot face and stretching its broad flowing body over the hills toward Nevada. To the west, more lava; craggy bombs lying akimbo on the grass and on the sandy dirt up to Crater Mountain and Poverty Hills.
Sandra reached for the AC.
“Better not,” Jason said, pointing at the dash. “Engine’s already pretty hot.”
“Only a minute,” she said, and cupped her hands over the vents, waiting, waiting, then the cool strong gas numbed her fingers. She placed them on her cheeks, then grabbed her water bottle from the floor. Jason shook his soda from Mammoth, silent, no ice left.
“Why don’t you take a nap,” Jason said. “It’s a long drive.”
“I’m okay,” Sandra said. “Why don’t I take over for you in awhile.”
“In a little while, though.”
She thought of the move long ago from Julian to Seattle. The journey then was new to her, with the only things to fear being the things she didn’t know, not the things she now did. She removed her sunglasses.
“What?” Jason asked.
“Take them. You’re squinting.”
“You don’t need them?”
“I’m not driving. Better?”
Jason nodded. From the side, she could see the skin around his eyes relax. He drove quickly, and soon they were in, then past, Big Pine and the Death Valley turnoff. The plains of lava and the sudden wall of the Eastern Sierras rose beside them. The vents began blowing hot air again and she tried to imagine what lay behind the parapet of rock: Yosemite, King’s Canyon—valleys of green pine, ocher molt, streams begun in the melt from last season’s snow.
Abruptly, a concrete-lined waterway of symmetrical width appeared beside the road. She felt it was odd to find the Los Angeles Aqueduct so far from the city, for there was nothing but desert and mountains all around, not a sign that here sprung a wellhead of urban relief: showers, porcelain gargles, mist from a garden hose.
“You awake?” Jason asked.
Sandra turned from her view through the window and looked at Jason. He steered with one finger.
“When was the last time you saw Fargas?” he asked.
“Years. He came to Mammoth after he quit the cruise ship,” Sandra said. “Then he went to Julian.”
Never having come to know Fargas well, she carried with her an image formed in the week he lived with them. His dark moodiness, night walks along the stream, enormous appetite then mopey fasting, all seemed so foreign from her husband. Were it not for their physical likeness, she would have never thought one the father of the other. Not a laugh line of Guy’s humor had seemed to pass to Fargas, and it was with relief that he had left them for Julian where he paid a modest rent and was, according to Guy, settling.
“What is it about a guy like that?”
“What?” Sandra asked, gazing outside. Ahead, wet clay-colored clouds hung like fog, beneath which rain fell in road-concealing intensity. Above, the sky was desert-blue. The first drop splattered against the windshield, its many fringe droplets like tiny beads of mercury. She waited for more.
“I don’t get it,” Jason said.
“Fargas. We’re talking about Fargas.”
A yellow sports car drove up beside them and clung to the U-haul’s side. It then lurched forward, passing back into the lane and riding mere inches from the U-haul’s front grill. Jason hit the center of the steering wheel and let the horn sound until the car catapulted forward.
“Idiot,” Jason said.
“Maybe he was just from Kentucky and wanted to look at the truck.”
“Then he’s an idiot from Kentucky.”
In her rear view mirror, Sandra saw a long line of traffic, some cars weaving like Indy drivers warming their tires.
“Maybe we should turn out and let them pass.”
“There’s nowhere to turn out,” Jason said. He angled his head to look down at the next passing car, his face glaring when he turned and looked forward. “I’m going seventy-five, too.” He checked his mirror, then pulled off the sunglasses as he spotted his own face.
“What?” Sandra asked, taking the glasses.
“I look like an idiot.”
“I thought you looked like me,” Sandra said. “We have the same nose.”
Jason moved the U-haul over a few feet to let more cars pass, his nostrils flaring, an expression Sandra realized she could not mirror in her own face. She looked ahead, following the L.A. Aqueduct where it entered the shadow of the rain clouds, the blue water turning the color of apprehension.
Under the dark applause of rain, Sandra felt that the highway signs were mimicking periods from her life. From Mammoth Lakes, in Mono County, she’d passed through Bishop, bright, new-baked and matrimonially white in the desert sun. The U-haul then slowed through the stop-signed town of Independence as they moved down I-395. She recollected the solidarity that had governed her when the two of them had up and left to Seattle, hoping to reach—like the sign pointing out a ninety-degree bend outside of Independence—a place called Reward. I-395 next tunneled through the precipitation to reach the town of Lone Pine; she too had felt these adjective emotions of solitude and longing.
Rather than intrigued by how well her life seemed to play out down the highway of thin dry signs, Sandra felt introspective and cold. She touched the air vents and realized the temperature outside must have fallen a double digit. Inside her purse she found a stick of cinnamon gum.
“Look,” Jason said, pointing west. “Whitney.”
In a brief opening in the clouds, the mountain peak rose at what seemed an impossibly steep angle.
“Highest mountain in the U.S.,” Jason said.
“Except for Alaska.”
“Okay, but forget Alaska. Mt. Whitney’s the highest in the contiguous U.S.”
Sandra smiled. She remembered that she’d been the one to teach him this fact, even down to the word contiguous read aloud from a book of the fifty states, back when she was ranking each one for its potential draw and wondering which one to chose. She looked through the clouds at the mountain and felt a kind of kinship with it, for planting it in Jason’s knowledge even if he’d forgotten she was the source.
Then the mountain was gone. All about stretched the vast dry bed of Owens Lake, its basin mineral white with a thin-lipped rim of rust color. She wished the rain would continue with biblical fortitude and turn the salt to water, the way the basin had been before being tapped by L.A.’s thirst. How long would that take, she wondered? Impossible, she knew, driving onward through the rain and the valley of illusion: waterless lakes, extreme heights, a town like Lone Pine where the lone pine had blown down in a storm last century, or so the rest stop kiosk outside the bathroom had related.
She wanted the journey to reach its destination and for her to be done with this radial trepidation. Once, she thought she’d spotted Guy’s car in the rear view mirror but had been wrong by everything: model, color, and driver. So she let her eyes slide into the first underclothes of sleep, feeling the warm familiarity of foolish plots of foolish scenes, and it was in this state that she saw two more road signs blur past, first Cartago, then, a half-dream later, Dunmovin. With a lack of self awareness, she entered true sleep, thinking these place names twists of somnambulant absurdity and adding them to her internal act. Bishop, Independence, Reward, Lone Pine, Cartago, Dunmovin.
She felt a gentle shaking and Jason’s voice.
“Sorry to wake you.”
Feeling at a loss in the still dry darkness, she noticed that Jason’s clothes were the same from that afternoon, making her rapidly evaporating sleep feel like days of journeying wedged into the thin margin of time between Owens Valley and wherever they were now.
“I can’t remember what street from here,” Jason said.
“Julian,” Sandra said, seeing the length of Main Street construct itself before her eyes. Before she could remember why she was here—of the house in Mammoth and that she was leaving a part of her life incomplete by returning so soon—before these thoughts returned, she first felt a quick emotion that cut in line ahead of the others, one of nostalgia and homecoming.
“Has it changed?” Jason asked.
“Don’t you remember what was there?” Sandra asked, pointing at one facade while her memory showed a blueprint of an older store, one run by a woman who knitted scarves of extraordinary length. Especially in red. In imported wool. Icelandic.
“What was it called again?” she questioned, waiting for an answer to wriggle loose in her head.
“Never mind. Keep driving,” she said, pointing at a side street that rose off the main drag into a more abbreviated narrow climb of clanging dirt.
So strange, she thought. Not once in the past ten, fifteen years had she thought of that old woman in the store. But now the place stirred her memory—the woman’s name had rhymed with an herb, she had worn Bavarian hats to church. What seemed strangest was how this woman and her accoutrements had been in Sandra’s head without her feeling the slightest ruckus of that tenancy. She had probably passed on now.
“She lived there,” Sandra said, pointing from the cab of the U-haul at a house she recognized.
“The woman. Never mind.”
“I’m trying to remember the curves in the road, but they swing down in the wrong places, past homes I don’t remember. You sure this is the way?”
“Yes,” Sandra said, looking about but finding fewer homes she could recollect. Then, traveling up a side dirt road, every building seemed to click into place and she could say, as Jason pulled to a stop in front of a house, “We’re home again.”
The house was den-dark, with its door locked and a hole in the wall where the doorbell should have been. She felt the wires in the hole, then tried the door.
“It’s locked,” she said.
Jason stretched, touching the gravel drive with his palms, then straightened up and swung the upper half of his torso from side to side.
“I’ll check the back,” he said, then disappeared around a near corner.
“Anything?” she shouted over the roof, after a minute.
Then the front door opened and Jason stood there like he owned the place. For a half second, Sandra felt the moment as one possibility in her son’s life of forking paths—a could-have-been.
“Hey. What a surprise,” he said. “Thanks for dropping by.”
Sandra smiled. “You play the part,” she said, entering and peering into caves of dark rooms through which Jason, stumbling, lit table lamps, a spot light and the kitchen fluorescents.
“How’d you get in?”
“Open window,” Jason said, then stopped to look at what caught her attention as well.
The piano seemed an obstruction to light and space, with a density that pulled and warped the room inward. She knew that Fargas played, but having never seen him do so, she had somehow forgotten the instrument in her mental image of him, never imagining it took so much space in his life.
“It’s big, isn’t it?” she said.
“If you’re expecting to move furniture in here.” Jason squeezed past her toward the bedrooms (had the hallway always been so truncated, she wondered) and came back. “It’s so small. I forgot it was so small.”
“You were small yourself,” Sandra said, although she too felt a little claustrophobic in a room with more black lacquer than carpet.
“It’ll have to go if you and Guy want to fit your furniture here,” Jason said, looking at the piano.
“I wonder where Fargas is?” Jason said.
Sandra shrugged. The house had an air of not being lived in. “Thanks for driving,” she said, as he turned to walk back out to the truck.
“What’ll you do now? Do you have to be back after the weekend?”
Jason unlocked the back and slid the metal door up and into the U-haul. The inside was dark and angular and for a moment seemed like the packed belongings from someone else’s move. Someone from Bowling Green or Lexington.
“I can stay here awhile, yet,” Jason said. “I thought I’d stick around and see the places I used to hang out.”
“You were too young to have ‘hung out,’“ Sandra said.
Jason carried a box into the house. “Then that’s what I’ll do this time,” he said.
She followed him inside and then found the phone in the kitchen, the same rotary beige machine from ages ago. She called Mammoth, imagining the phone line shooting up through the dark in more or less the same route she’d spent the last eight or nine hours descending.
She hoped no one would answer.
“You’re still there,” Sandra said.
“Yeah,” Guy answered. “I was going to come earlier, but it got dark fast. I’ll leave tomorrow morning.”
“Bring something to drink with you. The drive took longer than I thought. Hot, too.”
“Is everything all right otherwise?” Sandra asked.
“The heart, too.”
“Just once,” Guy said. “I was trying to take a nap.”
“Then you’re coming tomorrow?”
“First thing,” Guy said.
“Don’t drive if you’re sleepy.”
She said goodbye and hung up, the miles of telephone copper taking on new conduits of conversation and making her feel five hundred miles distant. She was concerned with his heart now more than ever and hoped he would relax once he reached Julian. With the excitement and stress of the move, he had trouble at night. It was like forgetting how to fall asleep the correct way, he’d told her. He had to settle into sleep slowly, gently, or he would experience, right before the promise of sleep, a split-second plummet that felt irrecoverable, like death. She thought it was apnea.
“I’ll sleep here,” Jason said, as she came out of the kitchen. He lay down on the sofa and tested the cushions.
“I’m asleep in ten seconds, easily.”
“Okay,” she said. “Well, I guess it’s goodnight then. I’ll close up the truck.”
Sandra walked outside, into the cool, into the darkness where the U-haul gleamed like pyrite. There were more trees than she had remembered. Oaks and some pines—all untrimmed with their lower branches thick and cutting out the lights of neighboring homes. Upward, the trees closed around the property and let the starlight in through an aperture that only gave her fifty or so degrees of view, tough for seeing much of the sky. There would be no Mars or Venus low on the horizon, nor sunrise or set, and she felt saddened by the presence of the trees. She liked forests, but seen from afar, like from the house in Mammoth where the shape of the forest mimicked the shape of the mountain beneath. But she didn’t want the trees so close that they blocked the sky.
She stood on the back bumper, reached for the strap and pulled the slatted metal door down to the cold heavy latch. The sound grated through the trees and she touched the metal slats to silence them.
Jason lay asleep on the couch when she reentered the house. In the bathroom, amid the foreign curls of toothpaste tubes and hair gel, brushes, bottles and small ovals of soap, Sandra looked at her face. She wiped the dust lines of travel from beneath each eye and from the shallow trenches of marionette lines that carved down and underneath the shadow of her chin.
In the bedroom, she turned on a lamp which burst with loud light then resoaked the darkness. She didn’t feel the energy to hunt down a new bulb, so in the light from the hall, she straightened the covers, fluffed the pillow, and rose from her falling clothes. Once in bed, she noticed with exasperation that she’d left the hall light on, but felt immobile from fatigue and left it burning. Jason snored like a worn out dog in the other room.
In the cool give of the mattress with the feel of foreign sheets tucked up under her chin, Sandra noticed a deeper exhaustion compounding the stiffness from the drive. She felt as though she had been sleeping in this very room only the night before, and the extent of so many years of life was, basically, an unwanted homecoming that left her worn-out. Everything turned to a twirl of memories and visions which felt burdensome to keep in check. Once, when sleeping in new places, she had been able to close her eyes, grow still, and convince herself that she was somewhere else. She could continue the sensation until an obstruction, perhaps the lights of a car shining in through what should have been a wall, or a sudden noise, threw her back to where her body really lay. Sandra closed her eyes and conjured up the shape of their bedroom in Mammoth Lakes. She saw where the dresser sat, how high the ceiling rose and tried to feel as though she were there.
But Jason’s snoring kept her in the cold immediacy of the Julian house, and she could only imagine the different rooms her body had known like the projection of slides—colorful, but depthless and out of context. She saw the bed in Mammoth, a hotel room in Reno, some hammocks on a friend’s boat out on Monterey Bay. But all the while her body’s touch returned the same answer: Julian, Julian, Julian.
Deep in an hourless night, after Maris and Fargas had made love within the narrow and low confines of Fargas’ tent, someone screamed. A girl’s shrill cry from the other end of the campground.
Then the same scream again. Maris listened to the sound of calming voices and watched the quick play of flashlight beams stray across their tent. She had not been asleep. The feel of the hard ground through the sleeping bag, along with the insectile whir of the desert, kept her awake.
“Hey,” Fargas whispered.
“Hey,” Maris said. “I thought you were asleep.”
“Did she get stung?”
“I don’t know. I think she just saw one.”
And then it was quiet between them.
“Fargas,” she said, but he did not answer. “Fargas.” She realized his voice had been but a cognitive feeler in a body otherwise unconscious and dreaming.
She and Fargas were camped at the grounds surrounding a hot spring in the Anza-Borrego Desert southeast of Julian. The campground was boxed in by hills calcified white and yellow from ages of accretion. Fargas worked in Julian or Ramona during the day, or down in Oceanside, Escondido, Carlsbad or San Diego. He always returned to the campground near midnight, bringing food, or else would cancel work and spend the time with her.
They’d left Julian a day before Jason and his parents had arrived at the house. Their presence forced her to trade love in a concave mattress for the hard convexity of desert floor, swept sandless to the original tiles of bulging bedrock. Nights would not be like this if she had money. During the day, she coveted the RVs in the other camp spots and at night she dreamed of stealing them.
As she wondered how long yet another seemingly interminable twilight could last, Fargas moved beside her and spoke with conscious urgency.
“What time is it?” he asked.
“After two. Three, four, five.”
“That’s not very precise.”
Maris drew numbers from the air. “Four-seventeen. And six seconds.”
“You’re making that up.”
“How do I know what time it is. It’s night. Sleep.”
She saw a brief green glow in Fargas’ direction. A watch dial. “I got to go. I should have left already.”
“Leave in the morning,” she said.
“Oh yeah. Like I told you, I leave the house, tell them I have a job in Oceanside, and within five minutes on the road who’s tailing me but Jason.”
“He must love me.”
“Oh good. Nice consistency you’re sending out.”
“I’m kidding,” Maris said, pulling his arm down as he tried to dress in the tent.
“No, I’ve got to get back. It took me a half hour to lose Jason and double back here last night. I don’t want to go through that every night.” She saw the pale glow of his smile. “Think of what we can do in a half hour,” he said.
Maris enjoyed Fargas’ concern that Jason would find out where they were, when really she could care less. She had called Jason and told him she had left him, and even though he didn’t seem to believe her, that was his problem, not hers. In some ways, she wished she had the drive that was keeping Jason hanging around in Julian. Moreover, she envied the feeling of illicitness that Fargas placed on being in the desert, with her.
“Tell Jason to stop following you.”
“You did?” She sat up and wondered whether to believe him. “What did he say?”
“I’ll tail you like a hawk until I know.”
“That’s him,” Maris said, watching Fargas unzip the tent door in the starlight. “He’s never been good with similes.”
Fargas picked up his shoes. He shook them upside down, banging one against the other to let the sand rain out. The sand seemed phosphorescent.
“What did you answer?” she asked.
He stood, and she could only see him from his ankles to his calves. Then he crouched, popped his head back inside and kissed her blindly on the bridge of her nose.
“I told him you left and I didn’t know where you were.”
The heat of his breath stayed a moment on her forehead. “You don’t know where I am,” she said.
“No idea.” His voice was fainter and flat as it emptied out into the world. In the tent it had been hers and, like his fingers, lingered.
The crunch of his shoes was clean and almost visible, like the movements of a folie artist in a soundtrack otherwise too spare. Even the insects seemed to have found sleep.
“Where am I?” she asked, but at just that moment she heard the car start and pull away, shift, then drive down the unseen road, shift once more and grow soundless on the blacktop of The Great Overland Stage Route of 1849, leading west to Julian.
Maris crept deep into the warmth of his absence, zippered the sleeping bag up to her neck and closed her eyes. From the night came a low, irregular sobbing which she had not heard before. Then she detected the familiar syllables of a calm voice and realized that the girl had been stung.
Maris crawled deeper into the soft vagaries of heat and sleep and tried to get the image of a scorpion tail, poised and still as a shadow, from her mind. She put her fingers in her ears and listened to the sound of a million atoms of air drawing into her lungs and emptying outward, back anywhere, nowhere, but at least warmed.
She tried not to ask herself why she was here, alone in the Anza-Borrego Desert. She tried not to think of ways to spend the approaching day, as though to let the unexpected step in. But she knew she would go to the pools, perhaps hike, read, anything to avoid leaving, to avoid the task of cementing the present to the future. She did not want to test her relationship with Fargas, nor to contemplate all that might come: a place to call one’s home, the task of finding work, the inevitable gobbling up of time. She wanted no responsibilities; to feel giddy with freedom, or if it should be called recklessness, then to call it that. She believed life changed too quickly to project a future reality. Instead, it was only this aimless movement which she had no control over that she wanted to feel. The only way to step into this whirl had been to leave Alaska, and now that she was in it, the last thing she wanted to do was think much beyond the coming day. She’d stepped from sea to land, from state to state. For now, that felt like enough. The danger, though, was that the whirling had yet to stop.
Fargas, with Jason following him, was not the Fargas she had come south for, and Jason, in pursuit, was a lost lover. She’d begun to feel as though the solution to this side-effect of constant redefinition lay in geography. Maybe she’d had enough of the west coast entirely. Like some explorer of old, maybe time had come to report back to royalty and leave behind the settlements of memories to thrive or dwindle on their own.
She dreamt in something like Portuguese.
The morning, like every desert morning in early November, was like a cold bite, through nylon and tent air from above and through rock and the fill of a sleeping bag from beneath. Maris woke in its bite at the first faint glow. She felt none of the usual cruise ship languor—the stuffy, porthole-less rooms, the sudden brightness from fluorescents that left her tunneling for a few precious minutes of shuteye before another shift. Instead, she sat up with something near a start, fully awake and cold. She reached for her watch in the corner of the tent and held the ice-smooth metal as she read the hour. Six a.m. on the minute. The internal clock was still ticking routine hours.
There was no use staying in the tent. Heat from the sun would not break through the basin of cold air for at least a couple hours. Maris climbed out of the mess of sleeping bags and blankets and stripped, feeling the air slap against her bare goose-bumped skin. She lay on her back and put on a bikini brief, next a T-shirt, finally Fargas’ warm sweats which she’d worn half the night. Unzipping the tent fly, Maris entered the predawn cool of Agua Caliente campground.
The only movement she spotted was a lone figure, hair disheveled and bowed with steaming breath, heading toward a tent. Other than this man, the grounds were still. Maris walked up the dirt lane, past ten or so RVs with their shades drawn. They seemed angular and impenetrable, except for the lazy cords that snuck in electricity from the outside. Shivering, she wanted to bundle herself into a tight, incompressible stream of energy and flow inside.
Near the hot springs, she heard the halfhearted sound of an insect, like a grasshopper murmuring in a dream-filled sleep. Of what, she thought? Long stalks of grass, dew, the things her feet slipped through as she headed to the springs. Far below her feet, hot soft stone warmed the water around a natural effusion, a leak of the abundant groundwater masquerading as parched desert. At the surface, it bubbled into the jacuzzi-sized basins before her. Hot, rich. The pools sat within a wood-frame building painted green with walls made of screen to keep out the insects.
Maris pulled open the door, the groan of the metal springs embarrassing her before the unmoving morning silence. A towel lay on the floor but no one sat in the pools. A rusting sign: No Alcohol, No Pets, No Glass Bottles, was nailed to a rafter under which rose the steam from a pool. The rising water’s thick slowness left a faint plateau among the stiller water. She could feel the heat as she stepped from her shoes onto the slab of concrete and dropped the sweats from around her waist. She lowered one leg into the hot grab of water. It seized her legs, rough now after days without shaving. She felt as though each of her cold toes were dropping off, another warm one taking its place. Her bikini briefs soaked up water, turning from red to a dark burgundy as she sat, submerged to the chest. Her feet felt something loose and smooth along the bottom. She picked it up, gorilla-like, until she could reach it with her hands. It was a beer bottle, smoke-colored with its label worn clean. In the open air, steam rose from the mouth. Caught in the rising sun, the bottle felt as precious as some rare remnant of Grecian glassware brought up from a sunken ship. She carefully set it down over the edge then looked out through the walls of screen at the white and yellow bluffs beyond the campground.
Her eyes moved cautiously as the lovely heat of the water soaked into her body and raced up into her T-shirt where it quickly cooled. Seeing no one, she lifted the T-shirt over her head and slung it over the edge, steaming. She had at least seven or eight hours until Fargas returned. Eight, if he’d have to dodge Jason again.
Funny, the way Jason pursued her. That was one of his traits she hadn’t known, for where on the ship could she go to bring it out of him? And what was the prize, when she was trying to leave her own self behind? Did he want the cocoon, the wizened skin that showed the marks of old pleasure and old pain? She’d be thirty soon, and what did she want? To embezzle time.
Settling back in the pool, she spotted a cold column of campfire smoke, then heard the distant snap of firewood. From somewhere, an RV door slammed, flimsily and quick, and from between two campers a Frisbee flew into the air, finally landing in a grasshopper’s dream. She sensed the long warm minutes of morning ending, felt them slipping away with every scent of wood smoke, every new sound that was not there a moment before. The day would be bright, bleaching, unrecollectable.
A dog divided up the grass, stuck in a low crouch because of its short legs. Its path wound around olfactory tangents before reaching the Frisbee. Whether saving it for last or stumbling upon it by accident, Maris couldn’t be sure. It sniffed, lifted a leg and marked the disc. Behind the dog, an old man followed, hair as white as rice noodles. The man massaged his face, one palm rubbing his chin, then the other joining it, pressing his forehead, then down over the eyes and into the cheeks, as though grinding out the last lazy slumber of sleeping muscles. He stopped at the Frisbee, picked it up, and headed toward the pools. The door’s springs groaned as he held it open for the dog.
Maris finished putting her T-shirt back on.
“Oh,” he said, spotting her.
“Morning,” Maris said. The dog’s head suddenly popped up at the edge of the pool, took a look at her, then fell away to one side.
“You haven’t been in there all night, have you?” the man asked.
“No. Just this morning.”
The old man stared at the floor.
Maris looked and saw the beer bottle. “It’s water. I found it in the pool.”
“Good. I mean, bad, but good you got it out before someone got their feet cut up. We had a woman here who stayed in all night. Ignored the signs,” he said, pointing up.
Whether to indicate alcohol or glass bottles, Maris couldn’t be sure. There apparently existed a loophole regarding pets.
“She had to be taken to the hospital. To dry out in more ways than one.” He smiled.
“No wrinkles here,” Maris said, bringing her hands out of the pool. The water seemed to evaporate from her skin at the rate of alcohol.
“I’m Jasper,” the man said, holding out his own hand. The hand shook from age, but steadied as it clasped her own.
“So, you’re just an early bird?”
“Same here.” The old man seemed somehow relieved. “I’m the campground host. Me and my wife.” He pointed at the campers. “There. That one.”
Maris couldn’t be certain which camper he meant. “What does a host do?” she asked.
“Oh, what I’m doing now,” he said.
She caught him staring down through the water at her. Then, as though looking for something to cover his embarrassment, he leaned down and gave the dog a scratching behind its ears, the dog losing muscular control of its tongue and eyes.
“Maintenance, too,” he said. “Collecting the money. That sort of thing. I was an optometrist before I retired.”
“How long have you been out here?”
“We’re here every season. I know the area pretty well.”
Maris noticed a broom in the corner of the building and wondered if Jasper was going to sweep. The dog scratched at the screen door.
“We go into town a couple times a week,” Jasper said, reopening the door and letting the dog out. “Just holler if you need something.”
“I will,” Maris said, and watched as the two, man and dog, walked toward the RVs, their backsides aglow with sun. The man stopped, then threw the Frisbee, then rubbed his fingers and brought them to his nose. “Mutt!” she heard him say. She kept waiting for him to turn around and remember what it was he was after in the pool house, but he kept walking.
Maris felt the air, thought it had warmed some, and stepped out of the small pool. In the shadow of the building she removed her T-shirt and wrung out the water, then tugged it back over her neck and straightened the clinging fabric. Back at the campsite, she found the towel she’d forgotten to bring. It was still damp and cold from the day before, and she tried to dry herself off before climbing into the tent to change.
When she emerged, every waft of air bore the smell of breakfast: bacon, the high sweetness of omelette, a tinge of hot chocolate. Maris moved to the other side of their picnic bench, opened the cooler, and took out a bagel. As she ate, she opened the tab on the cooler and let the night’s melt of ice waterfall into clouds of dust, rolling up the sand and dry dirt into dark covers that slunk away to reveal even drier ground.
As she chewed the cold bagel, an image rose in her mind of the Arctic Isle’s two breakfast buffets. She remembered slices of honey melon arranged to look like the blooms of some enormous tropical flower. In the center, pistils made of carrots and grapes were dusted with the pollen of sunflower seeds. And then there were the white table-clothed row of breads the color of chalk to coal, the heaps of cheese, meats, skyline of coffee mugs and glasses for the fruit juice machines.
Her stomach rumbled for food, for money. To travel, breathe, eat the exotic. She bit into her bagel again, but it was still stiff from the cold. She poured a glass of water, fed in a spoonful of fruit juice powder, stirred and washed down breakfast.
When they’d been in Julian, she and Fargas didn’t stray from bed until nearly the lunch hour. Afterwards, Fargas would go to work in San Diego to tune pianos. Sometimes she was able to make him wait until night. Once, she went with him to a store of wall-to-wall grand pianos in lustrous blacks, matte ebony, wood finishes and creme white, with little more room between their great curved bodies than to pass. She observed him from her vantage by the uprights and the electric organs along the wall, asking herself what it was about him, about her, that found them in a piano warehouse at three-thirty in the morning.
An answer had escaped her. One day she was married and working in Alaska, the next she was thousands of miles distant, no less married, but with everything changed. A week later she was living in the desert dreaming of scorpions.
That evening when she’d accompanied him to the piano store, he began playing a Scriabin etude. She listened to the call of a dead man’s song whose name he spoke before beginning. Then Fargas began trying out some of his own compositions on her, ones filled with equal emotion but, weighed against the Scriabin, so simple and immature that she hadn’t the heart but to smile when he looked at her. When he was finished, she put her arms around his neck as though he had touched some deep resonating understanding in her. There was nothing to explain, only actions needing movement. She kissed him and they drove back up the hills and mountains to Julian where he sat another hour at his piano, his fingers tracing out faint melodies as she climbed alone into the large bed and sank in discord with the rising sun.
After breakfast in the desert, the sun was higher in the chink of the eastern wall of blue. The bath house formed a long rectangular shadow over the grass and dust and over Maris’ campsite. It withdrew slowly. Finally, sun began bringing warmth to Maris’ damp hair, then she felt it hot on her forehead, like a hand. She dove through a duffel bag and returned to her chair with her eyes masked by sunglasses. The light moved down her throat, around the moles of previous stays and disappeared in the shadow of her reading. From Fargas’ house, she’d taken a book of Best American Essays from 1977 and a book of poetry by Rumi. The former was passionate over issues, stances, progress and regression; the latter wrote about nothingness like it was a lover.
Gradually the sun rose high enough to match the angle of the pages she read, spilling out onto the unforeseen textures of the paper and fading the words. She stood and stretched, looking around for anything else to do. She had never known days so filled with hours.
Despite having freed up for herself the once busy days, she was still unsure how to fill them, what new ingredients could constitute a value the days had never had before. It was like this: she had the desert, she had herself, she had the act of waiting of Fargas. She asked herself who she was without ice to carve, without the men in her life, with the ground still. Her question seemed her answer and the solitude made her uncomfortable.
She found herself imagining the house in Julian and the people inside. She saw Fargas there, getting ready for piano lessons or to tune another piano. He moved through the house and she was the secret in his head that brushed against Jason there, or Jason’s parents, slumped into chairs and couches she’d known for a week. Perhaps they were wondering where she was. Was she in San Diego, they were perhaps thinking? Or visiting relatives in Milwaukee, or back on the cruise ship as it popped through the Panama canal into the champagne Caribbean? Could be.
Maris turned the ring on her finger. It had always been too tight but she had never said anything at the time. She twisted it closer to her knuckle, as though her skin were threaded like a bolt, then over the knuckle and let it fall into the cup of her other hand. The band could hold a tightly wound napkin, or be a gilded whistle held in the round of her lips. It could hang on an aroused nipple. She switched the ring to her other hand and put it on her finger. Now, she was no longer married here. She could only be a married European. This attracted her. The simple act that changed the geography of her past.
It was only noon. In Europe, the day had already spent itself, her imaginary hours there worked out, sorted, regretted or missed and now ending off the day in exhaustion or sloshy festiveness. The future was another continent and settling into night and she wished the world forward in its spin, for day to drench itself in dusk, for dusk to cool to night, for night to bring Fargas and close the hours of waiting.
After lunch, she took a nap in the tent. The heat woke her. She stepped back out onto the sand, now hot, and took a walk onto the calcified hills in back of the campground. She climbed in two-year-old sneakers with tread still deep and fresh from never having trod on anything other than cruise ship carpet. In the desert hills, the short trails gave out among the bulbous white domes of minerals from dried up springs, or vents, or the fumaroles that lay silent and empty on the mantle of sand like the smoking pipes of the dead, giving off an odor where, once, the real thing burned. The trails picked up again. Near the top of the first ridge she stopped and looked back at the expanse of desert, tilted at a slight angle from the bases of worn down hills. Those hills spilled blue alluvial fans that flattened and flattened until the entire desert seemed their outer skirt. The color of the sand was blue and red and deep dry green in the fine scribble of brush and shadow. She saw suspicious hills that rose cinder-dark and symmetrical from the flats, around which she could make out the swaths of flood plains, the innards all rocks, the banks smooth with sand amid the flicker of gypsum.
Below her, a belt of green hugged the base of the hill, the roofs of the RV’s pointing up satellite dishes, the tents all geometries of color. In the center of the green sat the roof of the pool house and she could see people moving in and out. The creak of the door springs snuck to her in the alleys of still air between the light winds.
Up the road, she could see another patch of grass and a cluster of trees which, from the distance, seemed to crowd about a flight tower. She could not see a runway, but only a plane circling far away. She watched it straighten and descend into the grass and the trees, landing on a runway her perspective could not glimpse.
Except for the campground and the airstrip, nothing spoke to her of time. She imagined her view was not unlike that of the traveling Mormons riding to San Diego, or even of the priests settling missions a day’s travel from one another, back when California was thought to be an island. Then, the desert must have seemed large and inhospitable, a place of transit and not settlement.
She found herself understanding—despite a desert’s associations and despite the experience of verdant summers in Alaska—that she was wrong to wait for something to come into this expanse and fill it, just as she’d been wrong waiting for something to occupy the parched hours. Perhaps the empty hours and the desert itself were what she had been after all along, or something in a similar shade. Emptiness, nothingness, silence. Could it be that simple, she thought? The open panorama her prize, the forests her period of testing? To stop wishing and then tiring of her wants? Money and men, excitement and change—something in her galloping after these things and then taunting her when she went without, or poorly with. After all, when did the desires stop?
A wall of dry heat swept through her. The campground below appeared not as the cool refuge of tents about a hot spring, but a transient dab of water on the dry plain, a watering hole beyond which a faint unquenched puddle of heat extended until it disappeared into the color of the eastern sky, the color of nothing.
She climbed down from the hills and back into the desert.
Before, she’d wanted books to read, cards to play solitaire or merely shuffle, binoculars so as to see Fargas approach from a day of work. Now though, she swam. The outdoor pool was the temperature of night. Weightless, she propelled back and forth between the deep and shallow, making laps until she forgot which was which. Then she entered the hot spring and let the heat keep her muscles active and working while the wonderful weight of sleep settled over her thoughts and eyes. She looked dreamily out over the campground, easily picking out the casual campers from the hard core stake-shifting, highway drifter for whom a thirteen dollar a night campsite seems the beginning of the end of wild country and free communion. Something moved and she looked up from the tents and campers. A dog ran along the spine of the white hills where she’d stood an hour before. She closed her eyes and made him into a coyote.
Fargas arrived for dinner. He talked about his piano.
“There’s a big gash along the back, the lacquer all chipped and white,” he said, chewing a mouthful of pasta. “I can’t help it if there’s not enough room.”
“Of course not.”
“No. It’s not a house for that many people and all that furniture. No piano is supposed to be kept outdoors.”
“Where is it now?”
“Right there outside the screen door where Jason let it scrape. It’s too heavy to push. He didn’t even wait until I was there. He’s got some kind of vendetta.”
Maris refilled her cup of white wine from a bottle that had cooled in the last remains of the block of ice. Fargas had forgotten to bring more ice and the rest would be gone, melted to water by the next day. She didn’t bother to remind him.
“You know how much that grand cost me? All those years saving money and then paying it off and fixing it up?”
“I thought you were working on the ship because I was there.”
“I’d like to drive him till he’s lost.”
“You’re getting passionate about the wrong thing, Fargas.”
He swallowed half of his wine and went back to his food, seeming oblivious to the vast desert surrounding him, to all that could take away his wants if he would only look around and release them.
After dinner they watched the sun creep down the white bluff behind the campground. Maris felt the quick cold avalanche of shade that tumbled down. Fargas walked to the car’s trunk, returning with arms laden with firewood. In the campground, a dog bayed.
Here he was again, the man she hadn’t loved back on the cruise ship and whom she felt less the object of her affections and more as proof that she had left. She was not from the West. Fargas, the brooder, his eyebrows casting thoughtful shadows, was a native. She recognized that kind of brooding and that it only looked as though, inside, there were thoughts going a gallop, when really there was nothing but the feel of brooding, vague and disconcerting on the mushy limits of half-emotion and half-thought.
“Come on, let’s go in the spring,” Maris said. The day’s warmth had evaporated as well, and the thick starlight had spread from the eastern horizon to the false western horizon of the mineral hills behind them, every star flickering from the cold.
With the ball of his foot, Fargas rumbled a blackened rock in the campfire ring back and forth, sending little puffs of ash into the fire-lit air. The fire was nearly out and there was either enough wood for another hour or two, or enough for a small fire the next night.
“I’ll change clothes,” she said, creeping into the tent on all fours. She quickly stripped and redressed in that morning’s attire. But when she stepped out again, he hadn’t moved.
“Your turn,” she said, gripping his shoulders as though to give him a massage, but stopping short.
He moved his foot from the fire and flexed it. After he shuffled to the tent, Maris took his seat and tried to balance her own feet on the rocks, but the chair was too far away.
“How are Jason’s parent?” she asked. She looked at the tent to see Fargas’ silhouette but only discerned the weird shadows the smoke made, as though from invisible objects hanging between the flame and the tent. She heard the soft rustle of clothes.
“They’re pretty depressed. She’s good at not showing it. I think the move is hardest on Guy, though. After all, he’s never lived here.”
“Moving is difficult,” she said.
“Nah, losing the place is harder, I think. It’s nice what they had up in the Sierras. Not big, but with a big view and a creek and meadow.
She nodded, then said, “Yeah,” for him to hear.
“That’s how I want the Julian place to be. If that volcano would either blow or tighten up I’d know, you know? I’ve put work into the house.”
“They think I’m just going to move out, find another place.”
“What about the desert?” she asked.
Fargas climbed out from the tent and walked toward her. “No. I’ve fixed the chimney, the garage—there was no garage before.”
“Close the flap,” Maris said. “The night’s full of insects.”
He did, then reentered the low firelight dressed in shorts. A towel was slung around his neck with both ends hanging down his front. She reached for his hand and he gave it to her but it wasn’t much to hold and she let go as they neared the bath house. They weren’t the only ones with water in mind. Already there were three adults and a kid in the basin and the water was stirred up and white with air bubbles. From somewhere, a pump she hadn’t been aware of that morning dryly thrummed.
Fargas hung his towel over a two-by-four overhead and stepped in between a man with a big face with his eyes closed and a woman, perhaps his wife. Another man was talking to a young boy, the only one among them with wet hair.
“It’s hot,” Fargas said.
“Do it all at once,” said the woman.
Fargas dropped down into the water, grimacing. Maris untied the towel from around her waist and stepped into the boiling water. They sat there for a long time, she sensing that they were both waiting for the others to leave so that they could talk. But the only ones to leave were the man and his young son, and even they didn’t depart until the boy’s hair had begun to dry from black to brown.
Fargas still brooded. She could see the sweat and condensation on his face dripping to a halt in the wrinkles of his forehead, gathering into long lines and then tumbling down to the next wrinkle. The man and woman next to Fargas were equally wet in the face and equally quiet. A bulb in a plastic casing hung above Maris’ head. Steam collected on the lamp and every half minute or so sent a cool drop of water on her face. She opened her mouth and waited.
Underwater, she felt another foot creep awkwardly over her own. She looked at Fargas and he was looking at her. She closed her eyes. His foot moved up the inside of one leg, then the other, then no longer touched her. After a minute she felt it again, rising up her left leg and stopping in the crux of her knee. She straightened her legs and his foot rose to the inside of her thigh until it touched both legs at once. She relaxed and spread her legs slightly, then together to keep his foot there. The old feelings stirred in her and she battled briefly with the thought of nothingness until she compromised and placed her desire for Fargas as an act of the moment with no contingencies hanging over into the future. She looked at the others but they didn’t seem to notice anything through the opaque and bubbling water. She smiled at Fargas and he smiled back. She churned the water with her hands to make sure nothing was discernable.
“Feels nice,” she said, closing her eyes and imagining they were alone.
“Yeah,” Fargas said.
Maris ran her hands up the arch of his foot and then she removed her ring from her finger and began trying it on his toes, moving from the smallest up until she found one that fit snug. She moved her legs apart and pushed his foot back. She looked at him and smiled. Then she straightened her own foot and found his knee and corrected her aim and touched his trunks. Her toes felt an air bubble that bulged empty until she moved down. She pressed and saw the bubbles break along his chest. He looked at her and smiled.
“You want to get out?” he asked.
“Sure,” she said. She lifted herself up off the underwater seat and let her kneecaps break the surface. She placed her heels on the rim of the seat, then stood and climbed out, instantly wrapped in the cool of evaporation. Fargas came around from the other side, dripping onto the ground so that the floor looked like wet cement. She tossed his towel to him and took her own and they both left through the squeaking door into the dark. They continued through the cool dry grass and the still-hot sand that clung to her feet like tattered sandals. He held her hand like he meant it now. When they were in the tent, she climbed out of her wet clothes, he did too, and there was no reason to dry off. She put her ideas of the desert aside and thought only of the hot space within the tent, thought only of Fargas and herself. And then she finally experienced the illicitness of their being together, not the kind Fargas felt in the face of Jason’s chase, but an illicitness created by taking pleasure without telling Fargas that she would soon disappear.
Around midnight, the pump running the bubbles in the pool shut off. She hadn’t noticed it until it was absent. Then she remembered her ring and nudged Fargas beside her.
“Can I have the ring?”
“My wedding ring.”
“I don’t have your wedding ring.”
“Sure you do. It’s on your toe.” She sat up and ran her fingers over the ends of both of his feet.
“Give it back,” she said, although really, what did it matter. She had no business wearing it anymore.
“You never gave me your ring.”
“Are you going to hold it ransom for Jason?”
Fargas turned to look at her, but she saw little else than the faint wetness of eyes. “What? You never put anything on my toe,” he said. “When?”
“In the pool. When you were using your foot.”
“You were the one with your foot. I never did anything.”
“Forget it,” Maris said, and turned the other way to sleep. But she could feel the memory of the foot between her thighs, foreign now, like a disconnected limb. Then she remembered the man sitting beside Fargas and she felt shocked and disgusted. She rubbed her hands on her legs there as though his foot was still gently edging forward. She could barely remember his face. What kind of person was he? Then she remembered the woman sitting on Fargas’ other side. Maris squirmed and moaned in a mix of embarrassment and disgust.
“You sure you don’t have the ring?”
“Positive. Did you really lose it?” Fargas asked.
“Sick,” she said.
“Oh man,” she groaned. The thought of her wedding ring now on the man or woman’s toe made recovery impossible, as though only in that instant in the pool had she decided to make leaving Jason an irrevocable act. She almost felt as though she’d been tricked into it. Lying in the tent, she felt disoriented; now she felt herself pointing north, then west, east, then north again.
“You okay?” Fargas asked.
“No,” Maris said, placing her back toward him and trying to rid her mind of the feel of the foot’s calloused heel as it groped up the straight of her shin. “Go to sleep.”
“Then you’re lucky,” she said.
How easily they had moved from pool to tent, she thought, when all was because of her movement, her touch on his groin through the balloon of air. She tried to sleep, her mind asking why she had drawn Fargas to the pool, then to the tent. She had to leave these men, she thought. Grown boys. One searching for her, the other a kind of plaything. What was one over the other? They were both dull, brooding, changed only when she was there to change them. She suddenly felt older, a mother’s age but without children. The desert hissed with insects. This was her child, she thought. The child she’d just discovered and had yet to tell another about; this open, unfillable desert.
Exhausted, she tumbled into a pit of sleep where she dreamed she was telling a King and Queen about the desert and the mountains, and that California, despite the maps they held, is no island.
She woke at first light to the sound of Fargas climbing from the blankets. She lay still, unmoved from her position of sleep. Her ears listened to the sound of each of his legs traveling into his jeans, followed by the chink of a buckle. She did not move. His face came close enough that she could feel his warm breath. A finger drew aside a line of hair from in front of her face and she lay still and waited, imagining the expression on his sleepy face. Even with her eyes closed, she thought she could hear him right there by her own cheek, a millimeter away. Instead, she heard the rip of hundreds of brads uncoupling the zippered opening, letting the cool outside air trickle in. Soon after he was outside, she smelled the exhaust from his car as it grumbled off, then fell silent from the distance.
She slept until noon. She did not go back into the pool. She did not climb the hills behind. The ice melted and she did not drain the water.
When she recognized a squat dog running through the grass, she pivoted in a quick search and found the campground host, but could not remember his name. She walked to him with her hands in her pockets.
“Afternoon,” he said. “Drying out?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Sorry to ask, but when are you going into town again?”
“My wife’s going tomorrow. Need something?”
“Would she mind if I came along?”
“No. I don’t see why not. I’ll ask her.”
“Good. Thanks.” She bent down and rubbed the head of the dog with her knuckles. She could feel the shape of its skull. “Thanks.”
Back at the tent, she had the desire to begin packing for tomorrow’s ride. But she knew Fargas would be back soon, so soon, only eight hours or so, and she couldn’t have anything packed. She didn’t have the energy for explanations. The idea of another day seemed unbearable and she forced herself to sit and not think of it, nor of the thought of entering an RV, searching for keys.
She read essays, she read the poems of Rumi.
In the afternoon, she spotted a scorpion several feet away. Its body was all tension. The segmented tail shifted one way, then the other, then froze, done with double-takes. Scorpions were smaller, much smaller, than she had imagined. She looked at the shadow of its tail on the sand and tried to read the time, like a sundial.
Da da da Da da da Da da da Da da da Da da da.
Jason slid from the couch in a tangle of blankets and lifted the screen door curtain. Again, he heard the sound of the piano. Drawing himself closer on his elbows, he peered outside, letting the curtain fall over his head as he rubbed his eyes to rid them of the whiteness of sleep. But the whiteness stayed. A thin powder of snow lay over the ground and over the black fur of a cat pressed hard against the glass. Its hair looked bundled and straight, like the pelt of a rich woman’s fur. Behind the cat and rising upwards loomed the legs of the piano and the high plateau of wood and metal accessible only by the bench upon which Fargas sat, one finger on a key, the other clasped around a tuning lever, affecting the sound of the note in high twists and low drops of tone.
The weight of sleep brought Jason’s eyes back down to nearer ground. He could not remember the last time he’d seen snow up close, unconnected to glaciers or peaks. A thin manna-like crust he’d forgotten could fall so close. He reached out, then rasped his fingernails across the screen. The cat jolted straight to Fargas’ feet, leaving behind a patch of snowless ground. Fargas continued to repeat notes, an incessant tapping that went through the walls as easily as the cold.
“You have to do that every day?” Jason shouted, his voice dry and husky. The glass between them was so thin it shivered before his words.
“Should have thought of that before sticking it out here.”
Jason groaned and put the blanket over his head. He had not fallen asleep until late, partly because of the cold, and partly for having followed Fargas the night before. He had lost him out by Warner Springs and had spent an hour driving around hoping Fargas would emerge from some dirt road. Then Jason had managed to lose his own way and spent another hour backtracking to Julian, stopping at the San Ysabel Mission to ask directions from some Indians coming out of a midnight mass, their cars all parked silently behind a cemetery strewn with artificial flowers. The flowers were purple, yellow and orange in the headlights of trucks starting up for the ride home from church. He felt a fool for asking, for not remembering the roads where he had grown up. But he had never traveled far during those years, just the occasional jaunt to Ramona or Oceanside, or to San Diego. The place felt nothing like home and had left no deep markers in him that could point to places known and remembered. The first parishioner he asked didn’t speak English. The second told him to keep driving down the road, so he did. Soon a caravan of Chevy trucks poured from the church grounds and came up behind him in fits and starts, then passed slowly and unrushed. He arrived in Julian not long after.
Now, Jason folded the warm blankets and lay them at the foot of the couch on which he’d slept. The house held two couches, three tables, eight dining table chairs stacked one in the other up to the ceiling, one wall of unpacked boxes, and no heat. Warmth, it seemed, came from stuffiness. Although the floor heaters were plugged in, the cords squeezed through a crack in the door. Fargas had placed the heaters outside around the piano. Blankets, like the one Jason folded, had been placed across the top of the piano and were dusted with snow.
Fargas had moved few of his belongings to the garage. For Jason, those first couple days back in the house of his childhood made Fargas’ possessions seem as though they were his own and had always been there, just as he imagined for a moment that he had never left this town and that his own hands had built the garage, shoveled out a gravel drive, and worked to repair the clapboard rot.
This feeling had not come immediately. When his mother was in town and Fargas was working—and before Guy had arrived from Mammoth in the middle of a night—Jason had gone through Fargas’ bookshelves, opened the cupboards of the kitchen, the medicine cabinet, traced his fingers along the cavities behind furniture until there was nothing he saw in the room that didn’t feel examined, handled, and known. As though by a relationship with these things he would know not only who Fargas was, but be competent enough to step into that life. He remembered Maris’ phone call when he was in Mammoth. She’d said she needed some time to think and then she said she was in Julian, in this house where Jason was now. She wasn’t, though. He’d fallen for the big fallacy, that an aura of safety would come from knowing his surroundings. But when he arrived to find the house without her, he knew he still had more searching ahead of him.
One of his finds had been photos taken aboard the Arctic Isle. The photos were all outdoors and blue-cast. In one, a great slab of glacial face was falling to the water, except it was frozen in the picture and didn’t seem noteworthy. In another, there were pictures of Maris, her hair different then and her body thinner. He felt surprised that he had not noticed the change. She was smiling out the side of her mouth at him, but he knew that she was smiling through the iris of Fargas’ lens, throwing his sheltered eye a wink.
Da da da.
Even in the shower, Jason could hear Fargas tuning the piano. The notes sucked down through the flue and echoed in watery distortions. He was tired of this daily grind of waking, showering, eating, unpacking, wondering what in the world he was doing here, and then going off to look for Maris and returning back each night without her. He wanted days as long as years in which he could at least accomplish something, rather than be cut short by the quick sunsets that brought on longer and longer nights. He hated how they abbreviated his most ardent intentions into whims of short incomplete actions. He could go for the consistency of summer light in Alaska, or its winter cousin down in the tail’s rattle of South America.
He dressed. Then he stepped into the cold air, wrapped a scarf around his neck and planted his fists into his jacket. He trudged through snow that was too thin to make a crunch under his shoes, and instead stuck to the tread so that when he looked back, a trail of snowless tracks led from the front door back around to the piano.
“Hey,” Jason said. “How can you get up so early when you work so late at night?”
Fargas turned his tuning lever, then lifted it up and pulled out a short stick with felt at the end. He reinserted the felt between two of the three strings, keeping them quiet as he continued to play and tune the undampered string.
“I’m really surprised you get any sleep,” Jason said, “What with all those hours you put in.”
“There’s a lot of pianos in the world,” Fargas said.
Jason rested against the far end of the piano and dusted off an arc of snow from the blanket. “How come she doesn’t call?”
Fargas moved down a note and shrugged. “Why should she call? I told you she isn’t here.”
“That’s why she’d call.”
“To talk to you?”
Jason took hold of both ends of the blanket and gave a quick upward snap, sending the fine snow into the air as the wave of his movement traveled through the fabric to Fargas. High up, the snow glittered where an invisible ray of sun cut through the air. It all came down and settled, but there was somehow less snow now.
“Go back to your boat,” Fargas said. “You’re getting on my nerves.”
“I don’t think I want to. I think I’ll hang around here for awhile. See what makes mountain men tick. Get the feel for it, you know?”
“You’re an asshole.”
“Yeah? I’ll be that close behind you whenever you leave this place.”
“Man, I see why.”
The screen door opened and a hand drew back the curtains revealing a newly risen Guy. Fargas shot a glance at Jason before turning fully to his father. Jason saw nothing of the pot-bellied resemblance between them, neither the quick-humor or gait. But the eyes sat in both men the same, a kind of clarity that meant there was a plan, one that illuminated every thought with a kind of desperation. Neither looked peaceful to Jason.
“Morning boys,” Guy said, glancing up at the sky, then back at the ground. “Freakish weather. I don’t like it. Hot one day, snow the next.”
“Tell me about it,” Fargas said.
“Think there’s going to be more?”
Guy looked at the piano. “Maybe we shouldn’t have brought it outside.”
“Why’d you do it, then?”
“No room,” Jason said.
“Let’s move it back inside, then,” Fargas said, covering the keys. “And keep it there.”
“Well, there’s still no room,” Guy said. “But I’ll talk to Sandra about it. Maybe we can get it to the garage.”
Jason followed Guy back into the house. He could smell pancakes in the kitchen.
“Come on Fargas,” Guy said. “Breakfast.”
“I ate,” Jason heard behind him.
Just like in Mammoth Lakes, the three of them, Guy, Jason and Sandra, sat for a meal, equally surrounded by boxes but now in the claustrophobic interiors of the Julian house. All the expectations felt spent and cold. A melon sat uncut on the counter. The pancakes were flatter and heavier as they worked their way down through the pile. His mother wore a scarf around her hair and the same clothes from the day before. Here and there on her blouse, Jason could see fine lines of dust where the edge of some box or piece of furniture had brushed her body.
Fargas shuffled in and poured himself a glass of juice, but stayed standing.
“I met your friend yesterday when you were gone,” Sandra said, catching a run of syrup with her finger and licking it. “What’s her name again?”
“Who?” Fargas asked.
“With a daughter, cute. She stopped to see how you were.”
“Right. June. She seemed very nice.”
Jason remembered seeing her name handwritten on the inside covers of a stack of medical books. “Tell us about her,” he said.
“She’s studying to be a nurse,” Fargas said.
“Yeah,” Guy added. “Sorry to ruin the love nest, by the way.” He grinned, but sorrowfully, like he really wished he had the unobtrusiveness of a few hundred miles between himself and his son. Jason read his face and Guy looked over at him and gave him the same look he’d given his own son.
Jason left the table and found the medical dictionary in the living room. He brought it with him into the kitchen and sat down and opened it. June had written her name in large loops of blue ballpoint.
“June S.,” Jason read aloud. “What does the ‘S’ stand for?”
Fargas put his glass down in the stainless steel sink where the sound of it warbled. “Secret,” he said.
“Sanderson,” Sandra replied.
Jason flipped through the fat book of medical definitions and line drawing illustrations of everything from spleens to tonsils. He paused at an enormous list of phobias. “Fear of snow,” he said.
“What?” Guy said.
“Fits with the freakish weather. Fear of snow is a phobia.”
“I’m not afraid of snow.”
“I didn’t mean it that way.”
“How can you be afraid of snow?” Sandra asked.
“There’s also fear of stars, fear of stories,” Jason continued, reading down the list. “Phobiophobia.”
“What’s that?” Guy asked.
“The fear of fearing,” Fargas said.
“Good,” Sandra said, smiling at Fargas.
“How about apeirophobia?”
“Fear of infinity,” Jason read.
Sandra crossed her knife over her fork and reached for the book. “Let me see that.”
He dog-eared the page and handed it to her. She skimmed the list for a few moments before speaking.
“Auroraphobia—fear of northern lights. Gamophobia—fear of marriage.”
Jason looked at Fargas and Fargas was looking at him.
“Barophobia,” Sandra continued. “Fear of gravity.”
“That’s a handy one,” Guy said. “I’d like to see that cure. Hello, NASA...?”
Fargas laughed and Guy looked over at him, pleased.
“Here’s a phrase book,” Sandra said, turning toward Guy. “Hello,” she read. “I want to assist you. With this book I will ask you questions. Use one finger to answer ‘no’; two fingers for ‘yes.’ Do you understand?”
Guy held up a peace sign. Fargas gave Jason the bird while he drank his juice.
“Buon giorno,” Sandra said. “How long have you felt this way?”
Guy held up three fingers.
“Are you a drinking man?”
He made a peace sign.
“What is the color of your expectorations?”
“How do I answer with fingers?”
“It doesn’t say. Maybe you’re allowed to talk now.”
“You don’t want to know, then,” Guy said.
“Don’t be afraid. Come to my office.”
“Please remove all your clothes.”
“The kids are here, Sandra.”
“You will not? You don’t know? C’est necéssaire. Ist es unmöglich? Está bien. Show me.”
“Hey, what kind of nursing program is this?” Guy asked, smiling. He stood and took his cane from where it leaned in the nook the table made against the wall.
Fargas shrugged and followed him into the living room. “Regular kind.”
“Good. I don’t want to hear you getting involved with a Swedish nurse.”
“No. No Swedes,” Fargas said.
Jason heard the sliding door’s metallic glide and rose from the table.
“Sit down,” Sandra said. “Why are you always following after Fargas?” She turned toward the doorway. “You going with Fargas someplace, Guy?”
“No,” Guy said. “I’m sitting right here.”
Sandra turned back toward Jason, and he could see the seriousness in her gaze by the way she took turns looking at one of his eyes, then the other. “A mother likes to have her son around. When do you have to go back?”
“Soon,” Jason said. “I don’t know.”
“Here,” she said, turning the book’s cover toward him. “Do you see through a mist?”
In the distance, Fargas’ car engine rumbled.
“Do you see through a mist?”
Jason held up one finger.
“Good. It is nothing serious.”
“Wonderful,” Jason sighed.
“You will get better. I will give you something for that. Use it regularly. Everything will be fine.”
Jason rose again and put his dishes in the sink.
“Hey,” Sandra said.
He turned and looked at her. “What?”
“Everything will be fine.”
“I know,” Jason said.
“Then what are you worried about?”
“I’ve been wrong about what I know, lately.”
Sandra took her plate and stacked it on his, in the sink. “Why don’t you take Guy into town. Go ahead. I’ll clean up. Go look what’s changed in town.”
“I’ve seen it,” Jason said.
“Go for the exercise, then,” she said, then whispered, “Guy needs it.”
Jason rinsed his plate and left it in the warbling sink. “Want to go into town, Guy?”
“Sure,” he said, rising from a chair.
Jason put on his jacket and scarf and opened the door for Guy, who walked slowly out and over the threshold and into the driveway of thin snow. Guy took a big breath. Jason stood there silently and looked up at the sun coming over the ridge and hitting the trees. Snow dripped to the underside of the branches, then fell down, marking the blanket of snow in serrated lines of dark ground. Guy exhaled in one whale-like blow and started moving out to the dirt drive, leaving the print of his shoes to carry up the snow. The small print of his cane looked like the partial track of a cross-country skier. Through the kitchen window, Jason could see his mother waving.
“Want to take your car?” Jason asked.
“Nah,” Guy said. “Let’s walk. Like she said, for the exercise.”
Jason smiled and looked back at the window. The angle had made it turn reflective, now, and he could not be sure whether his mother stood there yet or had moved away.
They walked the gravel drive and turned toward town, passing over a tiny stream that cut across a low point in the dirt road. Jason saw the tread of Fargas’ car. On the other side, he spotted the delicate tracks of skittish quail. More and more homes came from between the stands of pine and lone oaks, the buildings reigning over symmetrical plots the closer they came to Main Street. Some yards had low picket fences with the tops weathered and splintering. The smell of apple pie perfumed the air and Jason relaxed.
“I thought you lived in the town of Julian,” Guy said.
“We’re getting there.”
Guy moved with glacial slowness, his bad leg carried along as though attached to a thirty pound ball. “I’d like to see it from the air. Let’s rent a plane.”
“I don’t think so.”
Guy took hold of the corner of Jason’s coat and looked at him. “You know how it is. You have to see a place from the air to get the feel.”
“Can you fly?”
“What do you mean?”
“With your leg, is all.”
“Sure,” Guy said, rapping his cane against his bad leg as though it were a wooden replacement without nerves.
“That had to hurt.”
Guy smiled. “Yeah, a little.”
“Sandra’s not around. You don’t have to act tough with me, you know.”
Guy patted Jason’s shoulder.
“What about Warner Springs?” Jason suggested. “They have glider flights.”
“No, not a glider. I need something that can throw in distance.”
They were now coming up on Main Street. Cars lay parked front to end in the side streets feeding the main road of shops. When they were still a way off, Guy stopped and moved his cane in front of Jason.
“I can’t live in this town,” Guy said.
“You’re living in it,” Jason said, looking at the tourist crowds packing both sides of the street.
“It’s too small,” Guy said. “If we had some money, if we could’ve sold the house in Mammoth, imagine the kind of place your mother and I could have. Palm Springs or near The River.”
“This place isn’t so bad.”
“You going to live here?”
“I already have.”
“You going to live here now?”
They began moving down the slope again and when they stepped out onto Main Street there was no snow to be found except high up on the hills, and even there it was hard to see. They strolled past shops whose fronts hadn’t changed much except for the names of the buildings and their functions. Saloons and dance halls with pleasurable back rooms now were pie shops and trinket boutiques flooded with heat from energy-efficient stoves consuming store-bought wood.
Jason remembered a little of the history from his first few grades in school. But when he looked at the town, that history seemed gone, or at least hidden deep in veins that couldn’t see the light of the tourists, the plumes of exhaust from new cars, or the turn of history into tourism and romance. He saw no trace of what he’d learned, the gold worked hard from veins, the sulphide and arsenical ores. Now, dollars came to see the surface town and little else. Not the history that had existed, and maybe not even wanting a history but the appearance of one.
In the town’s history were mines collapsed to time’s memory, names like April Fool, Don’t Bother Me, Red Rooster, Jolly Boy, and Lady’s Leg. But the men who worked them, the knolls in the wooden beams that propped open the earthen mouths of countless mines, the smell, nothing of this could be passed on because none of the eyes who had seen it were around, and now the tossing of stories had begun. Not much in the way of stories, either, only commodity.
Even for Jason, this past was but a story learned in school. The only history for him was of having lived here with his mother, years shaped with shadowed remembrances of men who took her out, or of her friends who stroked his young head, the feel of their sibilant whispers in his ears. The tragedy was that he had forgotten most everything, and what he did remember had almost no power to move him.
They shuffled down one side of the street.
“A regular gold mining town,” Jason said dispassionately, looking down at his feet and his sneakers that were not boots.
“Hmm,” Guy said, stopping before a store window to look at an antique assaying scale. Crumpled golden foil balanced a dark weight, like a miniature milk jug. On the counter below it cooled a row of apple pies.
“Did you know that they sent hundreds of gold bars from here to the Empress of China?” Guy said.
“Who told you that?”
“That’s true,” Jason said. “I remember that from school. But I didn’t believe it.”
In the air fell the sound of something like rain, and then the sound turned to clapping and boos. They walked down the boardwalk in silence. Then the sound of vaudeville rose again in articulations of admiration or condemnation, the latter hissing like insects on a hot day.
“Why don’t we drive out to the airport some time in the next few days?”
“No. The other one down in the desert.”
“I don’t think you should.”
“I didn’t say you had to fly with me.”
“I wouldn’t. Still, it’s not a good idea.”
Guy paused. “What do you want most in the world?” he asked.
They were standing in front of the new brick post office beyond which the sidewalk gave out. Across the street hung a banner for a festival but it had been weeks ago and no one had taken it down, yet. Tourists stood at the far end of the street and took pictures. One would leave and another would back into the corner formed by a house and a cross street and try to grab the whole length of Main Street in the frame, waiting for the preceding photographer to escape his view before the shutter would click, content.
Jason shrugged. “I don’t know. Maris.”
“You have Maris.”
“Not as you might think.”
“Well, don’t worry. You know what you want at least. And you know what I want, too.”
“I don’t think flying so soon is a good idea. Let your leg rest up a bit.”
The western sky drifted with hazy clouds. They would fall with snow but hit the ground wet. Jason knew it would be warm again before real winter brushed across. These were false seasons he was just recalling.
“Okay,” Guy said. “Let’s go back.”
Jason walked up the hilled road in large strides, anxious to see if Fargas had returned. Guy matched with large steps of his own, followed by a small step to accommodate his bad leg, followed by another large stride. Soon the road leveled out and they were back in the forest. The snow everywhere was only the thickness of frost and made the taller grass dewy and heavy.
What Jason wanted most was this: to follow Fargas and find where he and Maris were. And if she were now elsewhere, to find where. Then to talk to Maris alone and find out why his last two weeks had changed from contentment to bankruptcy. He would be a different person for her—he was a different man even now, he thought, because he knew things he had not known before. If all this had been her doing, he would forgive her. If it was his own fault, he’d show her his change. And if it was Fargas’, he’d take the oiled pruning sheers he’d seen on a nail in the garage and with them snap every last piano wire. Then when Fargas came home, he’d punch him once in the gut.
A half hour passed before they saw the house. By then, Jason was restless from Guy’s languid gait and from his own half-stepping and pausing to not make Guy feel old and slow.
Guy’s car sat in the drive and Jason began unpacking it of what was left. He’d spent several evenings driving after Fargas with the contents of the Mammoth house pushing against his elbow as he shifted, knick-knacks falling to the floor in tight curves, files and cassettes getting under his pedals.
After he’d cleared out the packed belongings, his mother needed the car to go into town. Jason sat restless in the house, helping Guy rearrange furniture while keeping his ear open for both his mother’s return, and more importantly, the rumble of Fargas’ engine. There was too little space to rearrange much, so he and Guy watched the San Diego TV stations and footage of reporters down below in the foothills giving live reports on the snowfall as though it were a crisis, when really it was now almost completely melted.
At the end of the news, Jason opened the screen door and closed it behind him to keep the cold from stealing in. The black piano sat three-legged on the patio, a beautiful thing, really. The lacquer was spidery from the deep reflections of tree branches. With its load of blankets, it seemed in battle with a sickness.
Jason sat down and looked at the pattern of black and white. He lifted the keys up by their thin overlap and felt the minuscule give. He pushed them down and was briefly startled by the loudness of the strings. The silence of the afternoon opened up and the tones filled the buzz of altitude. He reached inside the piano and plucked a tight string and heard its hard dull sound. Then he pressed a key, watching the mechanism of hammers, felt and wire part and strike, making the dead sound of the string resonate. What was it his own fingers couldn’t do, he wondered? What was in all that mechanism that gave the string such a different sound? He sat there and thought it over for a while. Then he adjusted the bench height and looked at the reflection of his fingers in the uplifted lid, noticing how much they looked like fingers that could play. Closing his eyes, he imagined he could. Then he envisioned one of the dead greats, Beethoven, Mozart or Bach, appropriating his soul and using his body as a medium. He felt his fingers on the keys, quivering with expectation.
Jason’s eyes flashed open as a car crunched up the drive. A car door slammed and then the engine cut and another car door slammed. From around the corner of the house appeared a young girl. She looked about ten or so and wore a thin plaid jacket, like a hunter’s. Her tracks froze at the sight of the piano.
“Wow,” she said, beginning to walk again, her hand running along the side of the instrument as though she were touching some animal she had often read about but never seen in person.
“What’s it doing outside?” she asked, addressing herself to Jason as though his sitting there did not surprise her. “Is it broken?”
“We needed some space inside,” he said, dusting the keys with his fingertips.
“Does this mean I don’t have a lesson?”
“I don’t know,” Jason said. “You have a lesson?”
“Thursdays,” she said, as though this were common knowledge. “A half hour.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
The screen door opened and Sandra walked out followed by a woman with features like the girl. She wore a pullover with University of Sorbonne stenciled in front.
“This is my son, Jason,” Sandra said.
Jason stood up and nodded. “Hi.”
“I was just telling June that’s she’s missed Fargas again,” his mother said.
“Yeah,” Jason said. He moved to sit down, but the girl had usurped his seat and had already spread sheet music out on the piano.
“Can you keep it outside in the cold?” June asked.
“Jason says it’s fine,” Sandra said. “Until Fargas can move it to the garage or someplace. But the ground is too soft right now,” she said, as though admitting some foible.
“It’s not that cold,” Jason said, trying not to shiver. “Plus he tunes it all the time.”
“What if it rains?”
“Yeah,” his mother said, repeating June’s thought. “What if it rains?”
“Tarps,” Sandra said, smiling. “These boys think of everything.”
His mother and June turned back, reentered the house, and shut the sliding door.
“Can you turn pages?”
“What?” Jason asked, looking at the girl.
“I need someone to turn pages. If I do it myself before I get to the end of a page, I forget what to play. And if I wait till after, it’s hard to figure out how far in I am.”
“You going to play something?”
“When Fargas gives the lesson.”
“No, I don’t think I can turn pages.”
“Sure you can. It’s simple.”
“Not for me.”
“It’s a long story.”
The girl seemed to take this into consideration. She kneaded her brows in thought, like a girl acting out some adult grief that she knew only in its outward signs.
“Let me see your hands,” she said.
Jason held out an arm and she took it and turned it over, examining his palm like a reader.
“I thought maybe you didn’t have fingerprints.”
“I have fingerprints.”
“Then you can turn the pages. I’ll say when. I’ll nod my head, like this,” she said, bobbing. Then she began playing.
She kept her hands deep in the sleeves of her jacket, the fingers only emerging to touch the keys and slowly trill out a piece. The right side of her body was straight so her foot could reach the bright brass pedal.
Jason knew where on the keyboard to play chopsticks and the theme from The Entertainer, but the young girl hoed over this ground, her fingers shaping out the melody, sometimes awkward from youth’s lack of dexterousness. It was almost painful to watch. Instead, Jason looked at the sheet music and tried to find some density in the clump of notes that matched the density of her playing. Then she finished.
“What about turning the page?” he asked.
“This one’s only two pages. There’s nothing to turn.”
“Do you want to hear another?”
“Whatever you like,” Jason said. “I gotta go.”
She began another piece as he entered the house. He could smell June’s perfume coming from the kitchen, a rose odor that wasn’t thick, but hollow. Jason walked out the front door and across the drive and found Guy in the garage. He was sitting in a corner on an upturned drum, his cane leaned to the side like some indeterminate punctuation. Much of the garage was filled with furniture.
“Hey,” Jason said. “What’re you doing?
“Still want to rent a plane, huh?”
“No, I’m not thinking of that. Thinking of other things. Life, pain, money. Mostly money.”
Jason stood beside him and turned to see what filled Guy’s perspective. The interior of the garage—hung with garden tools, stacked with newspapers and cans of motor oil—formed a frame around the open door: a picture of a gravel drive, trees, a bit of sky.
“Not the same view, is it?” Jason asked.
“Nobody’s fault,” Jason said. “You can’t control mother nature.”
“That’s just it.”
Out front, Jason watched his mother and June walk from the house. The girl came running around from the back side. She and her mother climbed into a blue compact with tan dribbles of dried mud coasting up behind one wheel where a mud flap hung loose. June rolled down the window and Jason could see her chatting with his mother. Then the motor rasped to a start and an exhaust cloud formed in the cool air, the blue haze drifting into the garage with a smell like airports.
“It’s a long drive from here to Mammoth,” Guy said.
“Yeah. It took longer than I thought.”
“You know, that extra day I spent there? Do you know what happened?”
“Some curtains caught fire. I forgot they weren’t packed until I seen them on fire, flames crawling straight up I almost couldn’t see them.”
“How’d you put it out?”
“I didn’t. It just burned itself up and that was it. Don’t tell your mother.”
Jason looked at Guy, then took his cane and turned it in his hands.
“It would’ve been a shame, wouldn’t it?” Guy asked.
“Those things happen. You were lucky.”
“Here,” Guy said, taking the cane from his hands. “That’s what I was thinking.” He eased himself off the drum and Jason followed him out of the garage.
They sat down to a spaghetti dinner an hour after dark. The wine was cheap and tasted of the alcohol, but Jason continued drinking as he watched the clock’s second hand twitch time. His mother looked tired. Guy ate silently. Then, Jason heard the sound of Fargas’ car coming up the road. It took twenty-seven seconds before it pulled up in front, the road seeming to stretch into detour.
“Fargas is back,” his mother said, and then it was quiet again. Over the ticking of the clock, Jason listened to the rhythm of new sounds. He heard Fargas step from the car and traverse the driveway in a metrical pattern that stopped after an odd half-step to the door. Then a creak for two counts, quiet, quiet, one shoe slipped off, another, the closing of the door and then the sound of him coming closer to the kitchen. A floor of cold air swept around Jason’s ankles. The time he had waited for all day was fast approaching.
“Evening,” Fargas said, entering the kitchen.
“Hey,” Guy said.
“We heard you pull up,” Sandra said.
Fargas lifted a glass from the cupboard and let a half-tumbler of tap water rasp inside, the air bubbles settling to half glass.
“You should have some wine,” Jason said, lifting his glass and aligning it so that Fargas’ head floated on a pool of burgundy. “It’s the best.”
Fargas drank his water in a protracted swallow and set it down. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and moved into the living room. It was as though none of them existed, as though they were mere ghosts, the way he walked in, drank, then out again.
“Did you tune all day?” Sandra asked.
“No,” came Fargas’ voice. It sounded too far away for such a small house. “Lessons.”
Jason laughed. “Yeah, you missed one, too.”
He could hear a door unlatching, and imagined the silence filled with the packing of clothes. He pictured ski outfits, imagining Fargas and Maris were planning a trip to a resort in Utah. Or perhaps they would drive up to Mammoth to live in his own mother’s house. Fargas had risked enough, Jason figured, why not that?
Jason stood and leaned in the doorway. In the living room, the black and white TV had been left on. It sat on the floor, along with a clutch of house plants. The sound was turned down, but the light fell out onto the side of the couch, another sliver lighting the second couch, the one Jason had slept on. In the time Jason had been here, Fargas had yet to sleep one full night in the house. He would occasionally come in early in the morning, but never sleep for more than a few hours. Jason often woke in half-dreams and would peer into the darkness at the other couch and hear breathing and sit up, straining to discern the dark bundle of shadow on the opposite couch. He’d feel his own hands wanting to serve a wringing like some great Indian burn as he stepped close, only to find nothing but shadow beneath his hands. He would still hear the breathing, but it would be his own.
Fargas emerged into the TV light holding several blankets, a pillow, and other bundles.
“I’ll see you all later,” Fargas said, moving to the front door.
“Where you going?” Jason asked, pointing at Fargas, then turning his hand up like he was waiting for Fargas to drop the answer in his palm.
“Tuning,” Fargas said.
“June was here again.”
“I heard you,” he said, and shut the door behind him.
He heard his mother sigh from the kitchen. “Well, I guess we better clean up.”
Guy stirred and rose to his feet. He lifted the wine bottle, tilted it to see the level, then turned it upside down. Jason saw a few drops of wine fall to his plate.
In the hallway, Jason reached for his shoes and stuffed his feet inside, lacing them by touch, not sight.
“What are you up to tonight?” Guy asked, sounding bored and in need of entertainment.
“Nothing,” Jason said, feeling the jagged teeth of Guy’s car keys in his pocket as he opened the front door. “I just left the garage door open.”
Jason walked out of the house. Fargas’ car was gone. The air was cool and he turned to go back inside for a jacket, but the sound of Fargas’ car was quickly dwindling toward silence. Instead, he jogged to Guy’s car, let himself inside, and started up. When he reached the road, he flipped on the headlights. But the night seemed piled with great drifts of darkness that moved between his view and the trees or homes. One headlight was out.
He had waited all day for this moment, to once again tail Fargas. Even the glasses of wine had no effect on his concentration. He saw a car moving at the end of Main Street. Turning left, he sped onto the road as the tension left the blacktop, became curved again from slack as it wound desertward. His hands steered into the turns loosely, using as much road as possible so that it seemed as though he drove straight and the road beneath him buckled into ribboning. Soon he made out the twin red glows of a car ahead and he approached fast, splashing his headlight like pulses of Morse. But then he saw it wasn’t Fargas’ car but another, and when he passed it he saw the faces looking back at him and realized they were afraid.
He drove on and saw the headlights of the car behind him turn down some other road, disappearing completely into the sidelines of darkness. Soon he again saw red glows ahead, and this time he recognized Fargas’ car. He kept his distance and drove into the curves more slowly.
What bothered him most—and this he admitted only in the solitary dark of night—was not that Maris had left him, nor that it was to Fargas that she had gone, but that deep within he felt himself sway indecisively, even tremble, between reactions. On one hand he remembered his feeling as the Piper Cub was going down, and after, the incredible sense that all that was important to him in the world was Maris and to her he should strain his attention since all else was, really, wreckage. On the other hand, time from the accident had begun to shade this feeling. He felt the impetus that, more than anything else, he should chuck this no-man’s-land of a life, even if it meant losing Maris, and live while he could live, before his legs gave out, before the pains of age woke him instead of mornings. His imagination took these leaps of time, presenting him with midnight scenarios of what his life could be and revealing how his present actions were not the faintest deer path to this end. Worse still, he realized he had not known how well his life had been, the way we know periods of our life are good only after they no longer are. So, these impulses rode with him, to either find Maris and make things right, or to go off, in this car, in this night, to a future as unexpected as he could imagine. And if he found her at the end of this road tonight, he didn’t know what he would do in front of her. Ask her back or look at her and smile. Shake her hand, shake Fargas’ hand, then drive on.
Anything seemed possible in the middle of the night high in the mountains. But these were intellectual games. What stepped on the pedal, what clutched and swung the wheel and stared at the twin rubies floating in front of him were not his thoughts but a hot swirl of anger and chase. While his thoughts checked and unchecked themselves in corners of logic and strategy, his foot leadened, his grip became quick and loose and he let the rubies advance, let the ribbon of road swivel beneath him. He saw the flash of his own headlight whiten Fargas’ rear view mirror. Fargas turned and gave what Jason thought was a laugh.
Jason gunned the engine, tightening the gap between the cars. Fargas’ car did the same and rode out ahead and Jason followed as best he could, squinting his eyes and wiping them to clear his view. There were almost no lights, except a rare comet-like glow off to the sides where a house sat behind an orchard or behind a blind of manzanita. Fargas’ car swung through a curve and Jason wondered where he was leading him, what place his wife was staying at, an unknown which was making him mad with want and simultaneous repulsion. And then these thoughts tripped together as the car shimmied under him and skid sideways in absolute silence. No screech nor squeal. Drifts of night blurred past him like fog as the car abruptly jumped off the side of the road and fell into a shallow ditch.
The car’s single headlight lit on a mailbox staked at the oddest angle from the earth. Sitting nearly in the passenger’s side, Jason realized at how much of an angle the car was lodged. He clenched his muscles but felt no pain. He brought his face to the mirror but saw only his eyes. His door was heavy and would not stay open, so he pushed himself up and out, his back keeping the door open in the air as he stepped onto the outside of the car with the other foot on an embankment. The door slammed after him.
When he made it up to the highway and looked back, he saw the glitter of running water from deep in the V of the ditch. He could see part of the car’s underside in the faint light. But no dust floated in the air, heavy as it was with the cold. The car seemed to have sat there for hours. He looked up and saw that the blanket of clouds was gone, lifting what winter warmth there had been into the rush of space. Nights seemed to have passed.
He turned to walk, then stopped himself as he wondered which direction he had been driving. In the distance hovered the rear lights of Fargas’ car. Jason began walking toward them when he felt his legs slipping. He strained every muscle from groin to toes to stay balanced, but felt himself go down. His rear hit the ground hard, and then his hands flattened on the road and stung from cold. He felt the asphalt, smooth as glass, and looked closer at the dull haziness of black ice, there in the curve of the road. He raised himself and stood precariously. Across the road rose a hill of rock and high up, oaks. He saw a pewter glimmer of water trickling from a fissure in the rock and shining on the road, becoming darker and more matte on its path into crystalline black.
Jason stood up and held his arms out for balance as he maneuvered over the last of the black ice. Once again planted on the grip of asphalt, he tucked his cold hands into his armpits and looked back at the car.
“Shit,” he muttered and the muttering came out thick and foggy and rushed up into space.
Fargas’ car idled ahead and Jason approached close enough to smell the edge of the invisible exhaust cloud. Fargas turned to look at him. Jason walked closer and the distance seemed unending and then he noticed that Fargas was letting the car slowly coast, just enough to keep the same distance between them. This went on for a few dozen paces, then the car stopped and Jason walked up to the passenger window and saw Fargas inside from the neck down.
“You okay?” Fargas asked.
Jason looked at the gesturing hands, the torso clad in a warm sweater, the pants that fled down toward the pedals. He kept walking. The car moved up and matched his pace.
“Get in, I said.”
Fargas’ arm stretched and opened the door. It swung into Jason’s path and Jason saw Fargas’ face for the first time, looking at him like a parent at a rotten child.
He walked on and Fargas drove beside him for a minute.
“Ah, fuck it,” Fargas said, and the car gunned and leapt forward into the dark, the door closing slightly in the rush of movement. Fargas’ car moved straight ahead and then into a curve and Jason saw the passenger door yawn open from the turn and then the sound of the car left his hearing and the only noises were from the trickle of water in the ditch at his side and the rasp of a breeze through the manzanita and brush.
He walked until he reached the curve where he had last seen Fargas’ car. He continued walking. Ahead, the air stunk but with a smell he remembered. Off to the side he saw a flickering of light that came and went as he walked. He peered toward the light and saw the silhouettes of apple trees marching past. Down one hallway of light between the rows of trees, he spotted a smudge pot burning, the fire leaping up from a barrel and making the lit night quiver.
Jason followed the gully, waiting for a road to cross into the apple orchard. But none came, so he slid down, hopped the sound of water, and climbed up the other side. Entering the forest of fruit trees, he saw half a dozen smudge pots. He moved for the nearest and entered a doorway of heat. The ground was muck and sucked at his shoes. Around the smudge pot he could see the imprints of other shoes, filled with water amid the ash covered crust of ground. Most of the trees he passed had been picked clean, but around the fires, apples still hung from the trees, as though the smudge pots themselves had prompted such irregular fertility. He stood before the fire and let the heat go through his cold clothes, searing away the chill. All around him, the darkness turned gauze-like, preventing him from seeing past the first few trees.
More than twenty years ago, he had stood in an orchard in Julian in such cold as this, only it had been daylight. It was one of the few memories he had of his father, too. No words, nothing emotional, just an image that lay in his head, so far back he could not remember if it was real or some recollection from a long-forgotten photograph. In his memory, he saw smudge pots and people tending them, Indians from the reservations—the Mesa Grande or Santa Ysabel or La Jolla—who worked the groves year round. He also recalled some seasonal help from just across the border. People. A fire. Frozen apples. His father was somewhere in this mix, although he could remember no more of him than the suspicion of his presence. But taken together, these images somehow reminded him of his father. His father perhaps had stood behind him, or he may have ridden his father’s shoulders as he looked at the frozen apples and the men half-heartedly dusting ice from the leaves and branches where tiny crystals hung, almost like snow, but more dangerous. He remembered an older man in a wheelchair rutted in the mud; the foreman, he believed. He recalled shaking his hand, being introduced, a name that was gone from his memory. Most likely the man, like Jason’s father, was gone as well after all these years. And then an image of what he remembered most came to him. An Indian with a baseball bat cracking shots at frozen apples pitched by another, sending the fruit splintering into the air. It came down from the skies hard and odorous, no one keeping score, just a long shower of frost-claimed fruit.
Jason stepped back from the heat of the smudge pot and thrust his hands into his pockets. They, too, were warm now. He turned and walked out the way he had come, feeling the cold air brush first across his face, then through his shirt and finally on his tucked hands as it worked through the microscopic slack in the thread of his jean pockets.
The trees continued and the road did not appear. He reached a fence at the edge of the orchard where the fragrance of the trees changed to a wild dry smell of nut and weed just beyond the wire. He followed the fence until it stopped at the road. A hundred yards further up where the air changed into exhaust, he saw Fargas’ car fuming.
The passenger door swung opened when he came close and he stopped and put his hand on the rubber weatherproofing along the top of the door and looked at the empty light-splashed seat.
The next moment he was inside. They were moving off in the warmth of the car and Fargas looked at him and said nothing and Jason said nothing back. He peered forward, waiting for them to come upon the lighted mailbox and the car down on the side. When a few minutes went by without passing them, he realized they were not going back to Julian, but onward east, toward desert.
Through the windshield, a sliver of moon shone like a fingernail tear in the heavens. Below stretched the blue-black floor of the Anza-Borrego desert. Driving to Maris on other nights, Fargas could discern a faint glow in the sky above an unseen Palm Springs. But tonight there were no clouds nor any reflection of city lights. He looked at Jason then back at the moon.
Fargas had spent the day tuning pianos in San Diego before a brief stop in Ramona to see June and make up a piano lesson for her daughter, Megan. Megan played a piano he had found for her, an age-pitted antique with fold-out candelabra, half-mute but all they could afford at the time. It had a strange golden German name from back before the war, when there were a myriad of piano manufacturers. He’d told Megan that the piano had been sent to Julian and that it had entertained hundreds of miners into the late hours and toward the dawn of another day, where the only music was pickax and fuse and deep down rumble.
Fargas listened to Megan play. June sat on the couch and watched him the entire time and after the lesson he left quickly so as not to say words that meant he loved her. As he’d left, June’s daughter said she liked the way his piano sounded outside.
On his way to the desert, he’d stopped in Julian for more blankets. Julian was cold and that meant it would be equally cold or colder down at the Agua Caliente campground. The back of his car was full of groceries he’d picked up in Ramona: an expensive head of iceberg lettuce, ground beef, a packet of spice, some fresh pasta, a bottle of wine and two dusty wine glasses sold in a carton package at the supermarket.
And now he had the additional baggage of an idiot stepbrother riding beside him, who didn’t know the first thing about driving on ice.
Fargas watched the yellow stripes emerge from the projection of his headlights and be trampled under the warm hum of the tires. He looked at Jason and at the goosebumps which rose along his arms like some skin disease. Fargas turned up the heat for him. Jason stared out through the window at the dark road ahead. His gaze was intense, as though searching out any frozen streams on the road so as not to be taken unaware again. He’d have frozen hard as stone in the cold air, those miles back, yet hadn’t uttered the slightest dialect of a thank you.
“Number one rule of surveillance: bring a jacket,” Fargas said.
“Oh, that’s right. You still have that thick Alaskan blood.”
As Jason turned his face to gaze out the side window, or to avoid him, Fargas saw two dark moles pull away from the cover of his collar, like insects.
“Why are you driving me there?” Jason asked, his face unseen.
Fargas looking straight ahead and used his finger to correct the slight off-set in the car’s alignment. “Where?”
“Where we’re going.”
“So you can hear for yourself.”
Jason turned and looked at him. “From Maris?”
“No, shithead. From an oracle.”
Fargas didn’t look at his stepbrother until he felt Jason’s stare switch to the night that battered against the windshield.
“You’re wrong about her,” Jason said.
“Like hell.” Fargas tugged on his pants to readjust them. He wore a bathing suit instead of underwear.
“Everything comes easy to you, huh?”
“Same answer,” Fargas said.
“Like hell. You think I have it easy? Who’s the one still on a cruise ship?”
“I’m not on a cruise ship.”
“No, not this very second you’re not,” Fargas said. “But you will be.”
“You’re still wrong about her.”
They passed the airport and left the few droplets of light there for the continental darkness of the desert basin. Fargas checked his rear view mirror but no one was behind them, not for miles. As unnoticeably as possible, he reduced their speed, making the distance between Julian and the campground seem greater for Jason. He hoped that Maris would not be sleeping or reading when they arrived. He wanted her to be dripping and warm in the grass when they pulled up, fresh from a swim and half-covered in a towel Jason had never caught glimpse of before. He wanted Jason to hear her words, whatever they would be. Punishment for the bliss of remaining life’s fool for so long; get him out into the real world to see that just because life’s going well is no reason that it’s not planning on dropping right out from under you with no intention of resetting the trap doors. Except, Fargas thought with a smile, sometimes you find yourself standing again.
Then the metaphor in his mind matured, adding a down-curl of uncertainty to his lips. How dangerous were these newly set doors? Should he step aside onto firmer stage floor, and where was that and what was it made of? The car whistled over a drop in the road and Fargas felt a snap-drop plummet in the half-second that it took for the car to settle back to the curvature of the desert. Ahead, he saw another slight rise in the road, brushed along the top by the headlights. He slowed enough to keep the car hugging the earth.
He peered at Jason again and noticed how young he looked. Jason was only a few years shy of Fargas’ own age, but his skin was still not hard with stubble-holes. Despite going off the road in the car, Jason appeared as though he’d emerged from a barber, the rake of a comb’s teeth still visible in his hair. A couple years ago, when he left the ship for Julian, Fargas would have given anything to trade places. That was back when he believed he had something to give and that any decision he made had enormous consequences on some plotline he’d one day glimpse entire. Ha, he thought.
“It’s not a joke,” Jason said.
“No,” Fargas said. “I was thinking of something else. Why? What were you thinking?
“Listen,” Fargas said. “She came on her own, if you’re wondering.”
“I know,” Jason said.
For Fargas, those quick words picked at the half-healed feeling of guilt that had blemished the otherwise smooth touch of the past weeks. “She searched me out, you understand. I didn’t do a thing. No letter, no call, nothing.” He did not mention the dead and forgotten offer which she had resurrected in him.
“That doesn’t mean a thing.”
“Just so you know.”
The air inside the car flared with heat. Fargas held his hand over a vent, felt the burning, and fumbled in the dark to shut off the fan. He cracked his window, and for a minute, let the air scream through the gap. He opened his mouth and let the cold air gargle amid the acid warmth in his throat. Then he rolled up the window. His face felt cold and fresh, but the rest of his body ached with a want for sleep. The road began to hug a ridge of hills and here, relieved, he turned off the main highway and onto a wide washed-out path that brought the hills closer, white in the headlights. Gypsum sparkled on the road as he pulled into the Agua Caliente campground.
“She’s been here?”
“Hey, it’s a nice place,” Fargas said. “There’s a pool, some hot springs, good for the skin.”
“Yeah, buddy,” Fargas said. “Here. Now you’re getting something right.”
Their campsite was at the far end of the loop, and he coasted past silent motor homes, tents, and a rare silver Airstream that glimmered and made the campground silver, like the moon above. He could imagine the strain of Jason’s eyes, searching out Maris.
Finally, he rolled the car toward the edge of their campsite, number thirty, and cut the engine. The familiar cooler of food sat in the night shade of the picnic table. One of the folding chairs wore his sweater over its back, collegiate style. The tent was dark and wrinkled from a week’s slack.
Leaving his door open, Jason climbed from his seat and walked on the path of light from the car to the tent.
“Not so fast,” Fargas said, but nothing else came to his lips to slow Jason down. He felt an outsider. In a second Jason and Maris would be a couple, albeit with a gulf between them. But they would have those looks from being together and he knew there was too little time spent between himself and Maris to compete with the vocabulary of long-formed stares.
He sat on the hood of the car to wait, there where the metal was thickest, but slid off when he felt the singe of heat through his pants. The opening of the tent zipper ripped through the air like the air itself were being torn, the sound fizzing into Fargas’ ears and stabbing the inside of this stomach like an ulcer.
“She’s not there,” Jason said, emerging from the dark.
“She’s in the pool, then.”
Fargas led the way. As soon as the pool house came into view, Jason broke into a jog that had too little distance left in it to advance into a run. Fargas could hear the splash of water, and knew it was impossible at night to see out through the screen. Their arrival would catch Maris off-guard, but he hoped dripping. He searched for her, but the steam within plugged the holes in the screen and made the wall like a famous painting of bathers he’d once seen, back when women were all large and had the faces of girls.
The door screeched as Jason opened it. When Fargas reopened it a few steps later, he saw three women and a fat baby in the round pool of hot spring water. The women were old and big-breasted, and they passed the baby around like in hot potato, letting only its feet get wet as it walked circles on the bubbling surface. Fargas turned to leave and felt Jason at his back.
“So where is she?”
“I don’t know,” Fargas said. He checked the outdoor pool but it proved empty as well. “Maybe she went for a walk.”
He saw Jason tilt his wrist to an outside security lamp with light that flickered from tiny pollen-size gnats and moths of pure wing. “It’s late.”
“Maybe she’s visiting someone’s RV,” Fargas said.
Jason walked back to the car, sat on the hood and didn’t budge, even when the metal gave in slightly with a sound like something dropped into water. Fargas looked at the tent, then higher up at the ridge of hills, trying to discern a black silhouette against the onyx sky. He spotted nothing except stars as he wheeled slowly about, finally returning with a descending gaze to the tent.
Jason had moved to the chairs and taken the sweater lying there and put it on. Fargas moved past him and entered the tent. It was as dark as a Julian mineshaft within. His hands groped from corner to corner in tactile recollections. Everything his hands came across was recognizable, nothing wasn’t his, nothing was beyond himself. He backed out fast from the tent, as though it would collapse, and turned about.
“What?” Jason said.
Fargas looked about the campsite, then under the picnic table, for any bag that wasn’t his. “She’s gone. She’s taken her stuff.”
“Where is she?”
“I don’t know. She’s gone.” Fargas pulled a lantern from beneath the table. He turned the knob, letting gas rush through the twin mantles and collect in the glass housing. He waited until he could smell the propane. Then he snapped the knob again to spark it and the gas caught and glowed the radioactive mantles, the moisture on the glass evaporating quickly into small pools that grew smaller and separated from one another, then disappeared.
“Where do you think she is?” Jason asked.
Fargas took the lantern by the handle and set it just outside the tent. Inside, he slid the sleeping bag and blankets from the thin vinyl floor. A bra he’d seen Maris swim in hung over one of the support poles in the ceiling. It was still damp in the cups. He could feel Jason’s shadow move back and forth on the tent wall. Fargas spotted the side of a cereal box, ripped into two dimensions and leaned against one wall of fabric. He turned it over and saw words written on the recycled-colored cardboard.
Outside, Fargas motioned for Jason to bring the lantern, but Jason was already behind him and placed the light on the table. In the gaslight, Fargas tilted the ballpoint scribble and read it first to himself and then out loud, to Jason.
“Dear Fargas,” began the inelegant letters. “I’ve decided that I have made a mistake, have misjudged you, and because of how I feel I’m leaving.”
He paused and looked at Jason, whose face stared down in concentration at the edge of light on the sand.
“Keep going,” Jason prompted, not even blinking.
“Let me see that.” Jason took the side of the cereal box, first checking the picture of a bowl of cereal afloat in glue-like milk. He turned it over.
“You didn’t read all of it,” he said, and began reading the words that lay in Fargas’ immediate memory with their cursive shapes, not yet generic, not yet colorless. Her words were thin and blue.
“I’m not going back to Alaska or the Caribbean if you think that either,” Jason read. “I’m going to try something different. I’ll write, if you’ll read it. Sorry. It was nice for awhile, but not for longer. I’ve stopped wanting you. Besides, you know I’m really not your type.”
The card stock drooped straight down in Jason’s hands. Fargas held out his own hand and took the packaging, then read the note over again. Afterwards, he looked at the bowl of cereal and turned to the cooler and opened it. There was no ice. For a split second of amnesia, he chastised himself for having forgotten to bring more. Lying inside the cooler was the rest of the cereal box. He could see the wax paper bag of flakes through the open side. It seemed as though something as innocuous as a large coupon had once filled the space.
Fargas fit Maris’ note within the opening and handed the complete box to Jason before standing.
“Where you going?” Jason asked.
Fargas gazed at the car and noticed how lovely its lines looked, the way the lines of a piano sometimes moved him when he approached one from the right angle. “Julian,” he said.
“Well.” Jason paused for a moment. “Don’t you want your stuff here?”
Fargas looked at the cooler, the chairs and tent. “I’ll come back for it.” He walked to the car and opened the door. “C’mon.”
“No, wait. Why do you want to leave so soon?”
“C’mon,” Fargas said. “I’ve saved your ass from frostbite once tonight. And you’re already wearing my sweater.”
“How do I know she’s not coming back?”
“You think the campground is full of kept women? Anyone here a kept woman?” he asked, a little too loud to seem innocently rhetorical.
A woman’s voice answered from the bumpy depths of tents and darkness. “Yeah. You’re keeping me awake. Keep it down.”
“You could have planned all this out,” Jason whispered.
“What out?” Fargas lowered his voice.
“All of it. She could be watching me right now, waiting for me to leave.” Jason turned and looked back at the hills and Fargas found himself following his gaze for a moment.
“You’re coming with me.”
“No. Maybe you had this all planned out so that I’d stop looking, you know? I’m not an idiot, Fargas.”
“I’m going,” Fargas said, in full voice. “You’re crazy.”
“Fine. I’ll be right here,” Jason said, equally loud.
Fargas thought that the sudden volume made their words seem like lines from some acted scene, insincere and artificial, and he wanted to hiss some near-silent addition to make Jason move. Jason turned and walked around the dead campfire a couple times, like a dog readying to settle. He vanished into the tent.
Fargas slouched in his car and looked out over the dark night sky, the darker hills, the low-watt bulbs from inside a trailer or two casting none of their yellow light to the ground. He felt the weight of ten minutes, a half hour, an hour rub sorely into his bones. Yet, unknowingly, he felt compelled to stay. He wanted to believe that he and Maris had cooked up this whole thing, that he was smarter and more crafty than his own evaluation of himself. How wonderful to be able to share Jason’s delusion.
Fargas remembered the poetry of Rumi, the thirteenth century mystic he’d learned about at one of the Friends of the Julian Library wine tastings. Maris had taken the book from his house to the desert—he had seen her reading it. Many of Rumi’s poems dealt with absence, stressing the importance of nothingness, of giving into it because of its impending reality. Until the loss of Maris had worn off those years ago, the poems had been help. Yet now, going through the same loss twice, Fargas wondered if only those relatively small things—love of a woman, or even cheap desire—are all we reach, all that we can ever be, all that we can conceal in our hearts, as though dark thoughts have some everlasting worth.
A shadow passed on its way toward the bath house. Fargas’ hope leaped to the front and he swung open the car door, only to realize, in half-latch, that the figure of a woman was not the figure of Maris. She looked over at him, or at the light from the open door, and he shut it quickly and settled back into his seat, watching the woman slightly speed to the light of the building, as though he were out there, walking toward her, something to fear.
Within the car, Fargas felt a brief rage burn quickly through the dry grass of his desire, one which hadn’t yet had a chance to grow higher to lust, or be cut down to the safe height of love. He imagined Maris in the ice freezer of the ship where tactile fantasies of violence and sex rushed to his hands. He quickly flexed his fingers and rubbed the feeling out onto his pants. He breathed to the timing of a grasshopper’s chirp until the chirp ended and his own breaths continued calm and slow.
The tent lay directly in front of his view and he felt something like compassion enter his gaze. He imagined Jason was still awake, villainizing him. Then, after this stage, Jason would experience the inevitable sleeplessness of loss, the feeling of Maris dropping from him, as though he were clutching her above a gorge. She would slip from his grasp and he would feel that plummet within his own stomach before her face disappeared into the vanishing point of the fall. That feeling right there; the trials of loss greater than the loss itself, like the worry of death in comparison to the simplicity of actually dying.
Fargas knew that without the past years of practice pushing Maris from his mind, this rude parting would have thrown in the dread of solitude he knew from before, the one he imagined was now tugging Jason from his illusionary footholds of security and purpose. A feeling like a creator over his world stepping down for a look only to realize the ladder’s been moved, that there’s no world now but the world below his feet, and nothing new or immortal, including himself.
Sometimes, late in a Julian night, Fargas did not know who he himself was, nor what it meant to know or be. He only sensed his time flooding out, and was at least grateful for the sensation of this tide. Perhaps lunar gravity was to blame for the nights when it ran low, exposing the mud, leaving nothing else to name or see. Come mornings, he’d rise thankful and fill the day with tasks of forgetting, believing again in himself, not in the sense of self-confidence, but in the more elemental act of existing. He would touch the ground as he climbed from bed, thankful that the ground was there, accompanied by the so eternal-sounding music running at high tide over his waking mind. All this until the following night, when once again the outward trickle turned to flood, uncovering the impasse of mud. Even though it pained him, he’d churn up old memories to ease himself—unarmored—into night, holding onto the faintest glimpse of land at the other end of sleep.
Within the cradle of the car, Fargas closed his eyes and again pictured Maris in Alaska, the image more peaceful now, the waves thick from bergs mulling like islands in the water. He could feel his memory of her sinking back into fantasy. Anything to get rid of the pain. What a large difference lay between his image of her when he knew her, or thought he had, and the image of her now. But it wasn’t the image which had so much changed—in fact there was barely an eye-blink of discrepancy. Rather, the place in which he let the memories and images unfold altered their connotation; from light and idolatrous when he was aboard the ship, to dark and desirable now, when all was impossible. Before, Maris was like a photo of a loved one carried in a wallet or purse—there to show others, given perhaps from the bearer of the smile. Now, though, she was like a photo he had of his parents and himself—one that brought a sting to his eyes because he always wished, on seeing it, to climb back into that framed serenity and union which had shattered and was farther than time from where he sat now. He sometimes thought, when the sting hit his eyes and his stomach, that all memories of things irrecoverable should be purged, like Swain’s Island from all but lazy maps.
In the southern hemisphere near Antarctica lies this ghost island. It’s still on many maps and Fargas had pointed his finger at it in a period of his life when maps corresponded with ambition. At that time, he could lay out complete continents of presumptuous want and trace the rough outlines of their meeting, adding a dose of blind faith that they all would come together somehow. He would live with Maris, (one sea emptied by the touch of his body with hers), he would compose, (another closed sea), and teach a son or daughter the delicate art of music if they wished it, the final fusing of his imaginary pangaea.
Swain’s Island lies in the southern arctic. Fargas had learned about it from the bartender in the lounge where he had played piano. They’d talked of how people must have thought it looked, the descriptions of this place taken down in ship’s logs and passing gazes. On maps, it lay near Peter Øy, Norwegian for Peter’s Island. He did not know who Peter had been, nor Swain. Most of all, though, they talked about the island’s claim to fame. For though Swain’s Island had once seemed to rise from the ocean floor, play catcher of wind, creator of soil, it had one detriment: it had never existed.
Morning came to the Anza-Borrego desert and Fargas woke to the cold. Slowly, he remembered why he was in his car. He climbed out, slammed the door as though he’d just arrived, and moved to the tent. Reaching down, he touched the ground briefly before pulling a tent stake from the sand. It slipped out silently, rootless. He made a clockwise round, until he held all the stakes in his hand. At the entrance, he kicked the fabric.
“Jason,” he said. “Get up. I’m packing.”
A half hour later, with the tents and campers limbering in the sun, Fargas and Jason left the Agua Caliente campground. The back seat was crammed with the tent; the fabric he’d hastily thrown inside still held pockets of air which blundered into giant shapes as though something concrete stirred beneath them. The sun hit the rear view mirror and Fargas adjusted it so the light would not blind him. He didn’t care if it meant he couldn’t see the road behind. Ahead lay more desert, but then the sudden fortress-like rise of mountains.
“By the way,” Fargas said. “I was wrong.”
Jason didn’t nod or shake his head. He simply looked out at the road.
The car slowly switch-backed up into the mountains, reaching tree line, then flattening out into forest. Fargas let the smell of cold pine blow in through his open window and prick against his face, like needles. He and Jason had not said anything much at the Agua Caliente campground, nor on the drive, and Fargas thought as well to let any words that needed speaking fall into order and sound on their own accord in their own time.
Outside of Julian, he spotted the area where the car had gone over. Fargas slowed and saddled the car near the edge and looked down. He could see straight through the driver’s window of the other car, at the seats and the stick and the seat belts hanging oddly sideways in the gravity. It felt as though the car had sat there for a week. Seeing it, he had a sudden desire for a motorcycle, where a passenger could only ride along with hands clasped around his belly, or behind the seat, trusting the angles at which he took the curves.
“Let’s get that out of there,” he said.
At the next orchard, he found someone with a tractor and a half hour later the car crept up over the edge of the ditch on its front wheels, then on its belly, then picked itself up on the rear tires and bounced once. It began to roll forward down the sloping road after the chain attaching it to the tractor. Jason jogged up beside the car and entered it in transit. Fargas watched the car stop and saw Jason’s wave. Jason steered the car to the side of the road, set the brake, and the tractor and the car unhitched. Fargas thanked the man and gave him a twenty which he didn’t think he’d take, but did. When the car wouldn’t start, he and Jason rope-towed it behind Fargas’ car and pulled it back through Julian, the town awake now and impatient with traffic. It was nearly noon by the time they heaved up the side street to the house.
“Where have you boys been?” Sandra asked, stepping out from the house.
“Desert,” Jason answered.
Fargas waited for him to say more but he didn’t.
“Desert,” Fargas confirmed, then seeing Sandra look at the car, added, “It died out there.”
“Guy’s been wanting the car,” Sandra said. “I need to go into town for groceries this afternoon, too.”
“Sorry,” Fargas said. “We stayed out there too long. Where’s Guy now?”
“In the house.”
Fargas watched Jason enter the house after Sandra. Fargas then unhitched the rope-tow and popped the hood and an hour later had the car working again, although he wasn’t confident it would last. He hosed down the right side to get off the caked dirt, holding his thumb over the end of the hose to concentrate the spray. The water pushed against his thumb like a tongue. He crept underneath and saw that the oil pan was dented, but there were no leaks. He walked to the garage to put away his tools and found Guy sitting beside the workbench.
“Hey there,” Guy said.
“Jason scratched up your car, but I got it running again.”
“That’s good,” Guy said. “If I had the money I’d buy a better one, you know. A jeep maybe. One of those luxury jeeps.”
“Those are nice,” Fargas said, hanging his tools on the garage wall above the workbench and stowing the remains of a can of oil beneath.
“Money is important,” Guy said. “Real important.”
Fargas looked at his father. “What are you complaining about? Don’t you have enough stowed up?”
“I’m thinking more of you guys.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Fargas said. “I’ve always done all right.”
“Yeah, you’re doing okay.”
“You coming in?”
“Not yet,” Guy said. “Hey, maybe we can go flying some time. My treat. I’ll pay the rental.”
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”
Guy sighed. “You must have been talking to Jason or his mother.”
Fargas patted his father on the shoulder, realizing how long it had been since he’d done something like that, a simple pat.
“Maybe you’re right. You seem to know what you’re doing,” Guy said.
“Appearances. It’s all appearances,” Fargas said, leaving his father in the cold shade of the garage for the warmth of the house.
He scrubbed his hands in the bathroom, then moved to a couch and collapsed into it, the fabric cool and forgiving and the couch long enough to stretch his night-bowed spine. The pillows sucked in the weight of his head and folded up along his ears, muffling everything into a near quiet peace. Eyes closed, he heard the muffled sound of Jason drinking in the kitchen, gasping as he set down a glass. And then he heard the sound of a shower starting, the spray heavy, full, pummeling him to sleep.
When he woke, he saw Jason sleeping on the opposite couch, his hair slicked back and still wet and dark. The light was dimming outside. He walked outside and saw Guy loading up a jacket in Fargas’ own car. The car he’d fixed was missing. Guy added an open bag and a few other things into the back seat. As Fargas walked up, Guy slammed the door, then reached down to pick a book of matches that had fallen to the ground.
“Hey,” Fargas said.
Guy looked up and leaned on his cane. “Okay if I borrow your car? Just want to go to town.”
“Where’s the other?”
“Sandra has it.”
“You could have gone with Sandra.”
“She’s not going to Ramona.”
“You’re going to Ramona?”
At the mention of the town, Fargas felt the hot temptation to bare his mind to June there, but he just as hastily decided against doing it that day, the words not yet available to him in any form.
“Sure,” Fargas said. “Borrow it. Keys are under the mat.”
“Thanks. I was wondering where they were.”
Guy climbed into the car, started it up, and backed out onto the dirt road. “See you,” he said, and waved broadly as though the two of them were separated by a great distance.
Fargas waved back and watched his car rumble down the road, kicking up bits of gravel that rang against the wheel well. The trees spliced his view and he heard only the engine until that too disappeared.
Fargas moved to the garage to close the door. He noticed a matchbook on the floor and reached for it. He flipped it in his hand. It was pink and blue, from the Stardust in Vegas, with matches dipped in hot red-colored sulfur, like rows of tiny lipstick tubes. He pocketed the matches, closed the garage door, and went around to the back of the house.
There, he ran his hand along the piano and cleared the blanket on top that was beginning to be littered with oak leaves. He didn’t know what to do now. He would not look for Maris, he told himself. He would read her letters, he might answer them, too, but he would never see her again. She would be pure words to him now, and fantasies of course, but that couldn’t be helped.
He would tell June, he decided, but without deciding when. He knew his life would swing one of two ways the moment he did. Either he’d lose her and have to face the loneliness again, or she would forgive him, and as a penance he’d be obliged to make their relationship stronger and deeper. He thought he wanted the latter. With Maris gone, June seemed more attractive to him; the way she treated their relationship as though they were perpetually reuniting. Even the small things made him smile, like when, in love-making at her house, she’d turn her sighs into a cough if she heard her daughter stirring from sleep elsewhere in the house. Her love for secrecy, even when he didn’t always understand why, did have a kind of illicit intoxication. Perhaps he could move in with her.
First and foremost, though, he needed to get this piano indoors, through any doors, into any room. He dug the heel of his boot into the ground to test how deep the soft earth went. Then he stooped beside what was left of a cord of old lumber scrap and picked out the longest boards he could find. While arranging them into a path from the garage to the petite metal rollers under the piano legs, he decided he’d look around for a place in town. Not an apartment, but a run-down house someplace that he could rent cheaply. His eyes followed the three wooden paths on which he hoped to roll the piano and he knew this plan would not work.
He looked into the house through the screen door and saw Jason sitting up on the couch, his head in his hands.
Fargas looked in through the screen. “You okay?”
Jason looked up slowly. “Tired. I’m really tired. I see blue flashes from the corner of my eyes.”
“I know the feeling.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
Fargas stepped on the heel of one boot and pulled out his foot. He opened the screen door, stepped inside and shook off the other boot, leaving it there on the mat.
“No, I mean about Maris.”
“Sleep. Every night, sleep long and deep and don’t think of her.”
“I haven’t slept more than ten hours in the last half-week.” Jason stood up and ran his hands halfway through his hair, now half-dry and catching his fingers. “And anyway, I don’t care about sleep. I’m talking about my wife leaving me.”
“Yeah, well, that’s not exactly new to me, you know,” Fargas said. He looked at Jason, “Not the marriage part, of course, but the rest.”
“I’ve never felt more married than now. Ironic, isn’t it,” Jason asked. He sighed then, quick and exhaustively. He took a deep breath, held it, then sighed again, as though he had forgotten how to exhale and was just now taking the first crude attempts to relearn what had always been an unconscious act. “So you think sleep’s the thing?”
“You think of something better?”
“Getting drunk, really drunk, so fucking drunk I never remember a thing.”
“Wait here,” Fargas said. In the kitchen, he opened the drawer where he kept the phone books and yellow pages. He reached behind them to where the liquor lived, a place that rarely tempted him when he was alone, except if, like a telephone number or street address, it contained something he suddenly wanted. He kept the bottles here because he knew the susceptibility: having no desire to drink, then coming across a recipe for a concoction, or something as small as reading a book in which characters are drinking, these small things being enough to send him into full drink-desire. But then there were occasions of true usefulness.
His fingers emerged from the cabinet strangling the neck of a bottle of whiskey, foul stuff and all the better. He took down two glasses, brought them back, poured two shots and set down the bottle. They toasted.
“Here’s to sleep,” Jason said.
“Pleasant dreams,” Fargas said, and swallowed. He slouched into a position where sleep could begin entering him. First, he pulled out his tucked in shirt, then began emptying the pockets of his jeans to make himself more comfortable. He fished out a shopping list, keys, and the matchbook he’d found in the garage. He tossed the matches next to the whiskey bottle. “Yours?”
Jason picked it up. “Nope. I don’t smoke. Where’d you find it?”
“It was lying in the garage.”
“I just saw one of these.”
“Maybe it is yours, then,” Fargas said, readying another shot. “Maybe you smoke and don’t know it.”
“No, I saw it in Mammoth. It was in a bag full of matches in a closet. Your dad collected them.”
“He did?” Fargas couldn’t remember ever seeing a matchbook collection. His father always used a lighter. “I’ll have to ask him about that when he gets back.”
Jason nodded. “Used to give me bags of them when I was a kid.”
“That’s why he used a lighter, then. You had his matches.”
They sat in silence some minutes, sipping their drinks.
“He wanted me to take him flying again,” Fargas said, finally. “I have a feeling there’ll be no rest till he does.”
Jason put down his second shot. “You can have the pleasure. I’ve had enough of small planes.” He opened the matchbook, closed it, then opened it again, all one-handed. He lit a match and watched the flame, then dropped the match in his drink. The match sank into the sudden eruption of flat blue flame that spread across the surface, edging yellow before going out. The air smelled suddenly of whiskey.
“I guess my life’s never been bad enough,” Jason said.
“What do you mean?”
“I still don’t like the taste of whiskey.” Jason lit another match and let it burn until it reached his skin.
“Hey, watch yourself.”
Jason dropped the match, then licked the tips of his fingers. “I think Guy tried to burn the house in Mammoth.”
“What makes you think that?”
“He told me.”
“He said he tried to burn it down?”
Jason shook his head. “No, he said some curtains caught fire.”
“They were probably brushing the heater. He’s forgetful sometimes.”
“That house has central heating. Only ducts.
“So maybe it was ball lightening or something?”
“Look, why would he want to burn his own house?” Fargas asked. “He’s not the type.”
Jason shrugged. Fargas put down his drink and thought of the conversation he’d had with his father in the garage. Cars and money and the future.
“Insurance?” Jason said. From the tone of his voice, Fargas knew it was not a sudden realization, but something Jason had been keeping to himself.
“He’d get caught too easy. Besides, he has enough money to get by on.”
“But not as much as he’d thought he’d have.”
“Yeah. But you didn’t invest any money up in Seattle.”
“I don’t have any to invest,” Fargas said.
“I didn’t either, really.”
Fargas watched Jason swish around the remaining whiskey in his glass so that it coated the sides in golden parabolas. “So what’s Seattle have to do with it?” he asked.
“I lost some with your dad.”
Fargas shook his head. “You didn’t let him talk you into something, did you?”
Jason set down his glass.
“You’re going to have to stop doing that.”
“It was my first time.”
“How much did you lose?”
“Enough,” Jason said.
“How about my dad?”
Fargas refilled his own glass. “Then he really doesn’t have that much money left.” He looked at the matchbook. “What would he do in Ramona?”
Jason lit another match and stared deep inside the flame. “I don’t think he’s gone to Ramona.”
Through the sliding glass door, Fargas spotted two cats curled up on the piano lid as though the lid were the warm hood of a car. The sun was dropping and he felt something in this thick air, an anxiety that would not let him spend the afternoon watching cats. “Me either,” he said.
The two of them walked toward town, then Fargas broke into a jog and Jason picked it up in a step, so he knew Jason was worried too. Jason spotted Sandra’s car in front of a store and they delved into the hot potpourri stuffiness.
Jason found his mother. “Can we borrow your keys?”
“You boys need a ride?” Sandra held a scarf in her hands, looked dissatisfied at the dangling price tag, and folded it up again.
“We think Guy’s going to do something,” Jason said.
“Maybe,” Fargas interjected.
“Burn down your house,” Jason said.
“Shh,” Sandra said. She sniffed the air. “Have you boys been drinking?”
“Yes,” Jason said, “but that’s beside the point.”
“Really,” Fargas said. “We’ve only had a very little. Could we borrow your car?”
“Where’s your own?”
“Guy took it.”
“Oh, that’s right. He’s going to Ramona on an errand.”
“What errand?” Jason asked.
“Oh, I forget now, but I asked him to pick up something. Why don’t you wait a couple minutes and I’ll drive us all back to the house.”
Fargas looked at Jason and Jason said, “ I guess.”
“Okay. Why don’t you buy a pie for tonight.”
Outside the store, the two of them sat at the curb and waited. Fargas breathed into his palm, but could not detect the linger of any alcohol. He looked about and felt as though time were wasting, as though the slow strolling of the tourists were agitating the situation. “Do you have a quarter on you?”
Jason pulled some change from his pocket.
“I’m going to try the airport,” Fargas said, moving to the nearest pay phone.
“Try Warner Springs,” Jason said.
“No, he wouldn’t have gone there. It’s only gliders.”
“Try the Borrego Springs airport, then,” he said.
Fargas hustled to the phone and in a minute listened to it dialing the airport down in the desert. According to the voice on the other line, there was a reserved rental in fifteen minutes.
“Okay,” Jason said, hearing the information. “We try there.”
They broke into the warmth of the store again and borrowed the keys from Sandra. “She’s dripping oil,” Fargas said. “I just noticed.”
Jason took the wheel and Fargas looked through the store window and at Sandra standing there, trying, he thought, to look oblivious.
Fargas stared sideways at the edge of town. Where the town ended, he watched the replacement of afternoon light fall soft and dry through the oaks and pine and in large open columns where nothing grew but pale grass. Orchards sprung from the blur, their rows like some flip-book of trees. And then the pulsating vision ended as abruptly as it had began, replaced by manzanita.
Twenty minutes of driving dropped them to the desert floor and then flat across the old Mormon stage route, the car shimmying where the dry creeks left sand over the road. Jason banked sharply at the turnout to the airport and braked in back of the first building. They climbed out in the long shade of the squat tower. Across the airstrip, Fargas could see the propellered snub of an aircraft emerging from a hanger and into the light.
The door jingled as they entered the building. A pristine cola machine sat against one wall. A few chairs and a table of ragged magazines lined the other and the entire room smelled of grease. In back was a counter and a door behind it leading to another room. Steps ran upstairs, and sunlight flooded down from the control room there.
There was no bell to ring, so Fargas called out.
“Hello. Hello up there.”
He heard rustling from above, then steps traversed above his head and solidified at the top stair, a pair of jeans taking them down in a one-two pattern. A man with a full beard and a cap descended and looked at them.
“What can I do for you?” he said.
“I’m looking for Guy,” Fargas said. “He has a rental today, we think.”
“Yeah. Cal’s out with him. Going to take him for a couple hours before the sun goes down.”
“He’s not flying.”
“Nah. Said his license is run-out. Cal’s flying. He needs the hours.”
Fargas punched Jason lightly in the arm. “See, he just wanted to fly.”
“When will they be back?” Jason asked.
“Not for awhile. They haven’t taken off yet.” The man looked at his watch. “Couple minutes from now. Cal’s always running late.”
Fargas heard the drone of an airplane and watched the strange bristle in the bearded man’s face.
“Usually,” the man said.
The door jingled and Fargas turned.
“Hey Cal, these boys been looking for your passenger.”
“That son of a bitch,” Cal said.
Jason moved to the windows and looked up at the sky. Fargas felt a pain in his stomach and looked at Cal, gazing at the cleft in his chin as though it pinched some knowledge.
“I took out the plane and had him inside and came back here to change the flight plan. He took off before I was halfway across the field. No engine test, nothing. Straight off.”
“Shit,” the other man said, and hurriedly broke company for the stairs.
Cal followed and Fargas wasted no time in taking up the draft of their movement.
“What kind of stunt’s he pulling?” the bearded man asked, holding a pair of binoculars to his eyes.
Fargas looked through the tinted glass and shrugged. “I don’t know. He wanted me to take him flying.” He followed the runway and saw the plane far out, low on the horizon, but climbing.
Cal turned to him. “Why didn’t you?”
“I’m not a pilot.”
The bearded man held a headpiece to one ear and spoke into the mic. “This is Borrego Springs. You hear me, Guy?”
Through the glass, Fargas could see the glint of the Cessna as it broke from the rough background of the desert and mountains to rise against the blue backdrop of the sky. The sound of it was nearly gone.
“Come on,” Jason said, “let’s follow him.”
“We can’t follow him,” Fargas said.
“Guy. This is Borrego Springs,” the bearded man repeated.
Jason turned to Cal. “Where was he changing the flight to?”
“La Jolla. He wanted to fly around out there.”
Jason tramped down the stairs and Fargas followed him down and outside, where the sound of the Cessna’s engine was louder, but seemed to come from all the wrong directions. By the time Fargas spotted it, Jason had the engine turned over.
Jason drove out the way they’d come. The window grime made anything smaller than a dime disappear into a blur. Fargas rolled down the window and leaned outside, pursing his lips in the wind as he scanned the blue glare and the high taffy-stretched clouds between earth and space.
“Yes.” Fargas moved closer inside to make his voice heard, but not enough to lose sight of the plane. He could see several close blurs: one wing, the tail, another wing. For a few moments, he couldn’t tell if it was approaching or receding. “Keep going. I see him.”
“Maybe he’s only going to circle a bit. Maybe they’re talking him down right now.”
The structure of the plane began fusing together and his tracking of the craft became less of a visual certainty and more of a faith. He saw something, but the shape in his mind seemed almost an imagined view of the plane. Suddenly, his uncertainty jinxed his vision, and when he could only rely on sensory certitude again, the plane vanished, as though it had never been. The car jumped in and out of a pothole and Fargas felt the edge of the car door along his neck.
“Great,” he said.
“What? What’s he doing?”
“Nothing,” Fargas said. “I lost him.”
“Keep looking,” Jason said. “Keep looking where you were looking before.”
Fargas scanned the blue. He was like a tracker, a member of a hot air balloon ground crew, or a pilot of one of those planes that flew the skies with giant nets to catch early satellites as they fell, their film plummeting over enemy territory. He felt he was following and searching in his own interest, as though to spot the Cessna again and know he could see it land would mean he would have nothing more to worry about, everything revealing itself with the black and white sharpness of infrared: the roads he didn’t know were there, the forests which concealed the enemy, the enemy who went unseen but left their weapons in view.
But after several minutes, Fargas had no further glimpse of the Cessna, and he tucked his head back into the car, rolled up the window, and rubbed the chaff of wind and dry air from his cheeks. A sensation, like a hand, stayed pressed against his cold forehead.
“What now?” Jason asked.
“I don’t know.”
“He’s not headed to La Jolla is he?”
“Back to the airport?”
“Not this one. Keep driving.”
Fargas closed his eyes and tried to imagine the inside of the plane and what Guy was seeing at this very moment. Desert, forest, mountains, ocean—nothing but words. The only thing Fargas felt reasonably sure of was direction and altitude. North and high.
Ahead on the desert floor, a highway intersection cut a line over the road. Fargas watched it approach and disappear as they rode the gentle crenelation of the desert floor.
“North,” he said, looking at Jason. “Drive north.”
And when they reached the intersection, Jason swung the car to the right. After a few minutes, Fargas felt they were driving the same compass direction as before, the desert similar, the feeling in his head the same. One pavement. And this went on, road to road, highway to freeway, until they reached San Bernardino County and pure city. The sun set in the span of the urban floodplain and as they road the break over the San Andreas fault between Mt. Baldy on the west and Big Bear on the east, their sight was reduced to the cast of the headlight and the wash of the city glow. Beyond the mountains, the highway turned smaller, unlit. But the moon was full and galvanized the desert.
The rush of wind from the search had given Fargas a headache, and he closed his eyes, tired enough for sleep, but kept awake to the rhythm of his own blood rushing in spurts through the intricacies of a million veins, feeding and depriving a hundred thoughts, there in that same matter. The beating was like the sound of water breaking up on the side of a ship’s bow and flopping down again on new attempts. Cut, coast, flop. Cut, coast, flop. It was a moon-lit memory, the water breaking the color of quicksilver to a frothy rhythm.
In the distance, he could picture a glacier spilling down from the giant freezer of mountains, its face all pillars, its back wrinkled by lines of dark till. The fjord was thick from cold, the whole surface full of small bergs. Between his memory of himself and his memory of the glacier, a fishing boat was coming in from a midnight trawl, its wake looking like the thread of a long, thin screw.
This was an evening memory that had never been, and it lacked the one thing all his other recollections of the Arctic Isle gravitated towards. Maris. She was not there until now, in thinking of her absence; her absence that evoked presence. But the construct of her did not fit into the ship. For the first time, he knew he could return to the cruise life if he chose. He held onto the railing and watched the glacier’s face crumble quickly into the water, as though the water were as light and empty as air.
Watching this slow rush of ice collapse, Fargas sensed that there was a real place where he was now, not on the bow of the Arctic Isle, but rather, a place just outside the thin membrane of this dreamscape. He thought that if he dwelled too much on this suspicion, his Alaskan world would crumble. These mere thoughts were enough. In an instant the drought sounds of the road returned to his ears, and the smell of the desert and the feeling that nothing was as settled as he wished.
The expanse of the Anza-Borrego desert spread beneath Guy like the remnant of an enormous caldera. He pulled up to follow the ground’s steep climb from the Anza-Borrego Desert floor and over the rocky parapet. As the Cessna gained altitude, the rim of mountains toward Julian began revealing row after row of peaks that then began sinking away, as though into a soft earth. Far off, the observatory on Mt. Palomar looked like a golf ball. Below, the ground grew verdant and flatter and soon he could see the rooftops of Julian through the trees.
Aloft and alone, Guy looked at the bag in the seat next to him and let more air into the cabin to lessen the pungent smell of sulfur. He circled until he could see the house. Then, as though needing it to get his bearing, he headed north.
To the east he could see the Salton Sea and the land beyond. He tried to visualize the rich Imperial Valley back before 1905 (distance being something like time) when the desert was flooded by the Colorado River and the Salton Sink became the Salton Sea, home to retirees and Baja riders. To the west appeared the enormous Pacific. He kept on this northward course with the two borders of California present in his mind, his flight seeming like some movement of the eye over a map of the golden state.
He’d dreamed this feeling of flight since crashing, and once again he experienced a kind of peace from this pilot’s perspective of the earth. The rented Cessna purred, and the little turbulence seemed only to push him salmon-like through higher and higher streams of air, away from memories of gravity and ground.
He skirted the Los Angeles basin and the paltry snows atop the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains. Next came the parchment colored desert that began folding in ridges and box canyons of red and purple and black. To the east, Nevada had already fallen into shadow. The sun blinded Guy’s view of the Pacific as it doused itself, sending up a steam of glare. California was brushed with darkness and the only light came from the setting sun and the tops of the Sierras below, the Mt. Whitney range like yellow teeth in the jawbone of an old wolf, and then that too was gone.
Guy looked down at the pale high country of the Sierras. The shores of tiny lakes were freezing in blue auras around the black water, like eyes. He hadn’t hiked in years, but he could imagine how cold it was there below, night beginning to settle and the mountains seeming like all there is in the world.
He landed at the airport south of Mammoth and took a taxi through town, passing the McDonalds, the Booky Joint—where he used to buy the aeronautical magazines—, the Safeway, the local movie theater, the Stovepipe with its breakfasts and orange juice served in jam jar glasses. These places were bright with lights that flooded out onto the parking lots of snow, and they seemed like milestones on his ride. Above, the sky evaporated into an impenetrable darkness. Cars racked with skis drove by, leaving trails of asphalt. Couples walked arm in padded arm along the road, their breaths like locomotive steam. Guy marveled how little the darkness above affected their gait, their plans, their stream of words. A gold statue of some protectorate saint stood glued to the taxi’s dashboard.
“Right here,” Guy said, after they dove into the darkness of Old Town.
“Gotcha,” the taxi driver said, slowing.
“You got a little job ahead of you with the shovel,” the driver said.
Guy looked at the plain of snow between the road and his house. He had never seen it so deep, so untouched. “Yeah.”
He paid, grabbed his few things, and stepped out onto the road. The driver made a three-point turn and left for the glow of the town. Next door, Guy could see light flickering in the windows of the Piedmont’s house. He began walking along the road toward his neighbor. A beat-up Subaru with a long insectile antenna sat on the cleared driveway. A snowboard and several pairs of skis lay on the car’s roof. He wondered if the Piedmonts had sold their house or were now renting it, if perhaps the gas had ceased rising and all was safe once more.
He approached the kitchen window and peered into candlelight. Cans were strewn on the countertop. Through the doorway to the living room he could see several young men and women, teenagers. They sat half-clad, yoga like, on the floor. A heap of candles burned on a plate in the middle of the room, like a faint representation of a campfire. Drinks lay cradled within their legs and their hands glowed with the tips of cigarettes. He saw no furniture, no sign that the Piedmonts had returned, no indication that these people were anything other than squatters with snowboards and skis. A girl’s laugh slipped through to his ears and he turned back to the road and his own house wondering what he would find there.
His pants were white with snow when he reached the porch. A warning about the gas had been rudely stapled into the front door but did not stop his key from coupling and letting him inside. He stood there with the door ajar, wedging his key beneath the staples to pry them out, one by one.
Inside, the air was stale and cold. He smelled nothing unusual, but knew this was the odor of the gas. Upstairs, his eyes seized on the couch, a few wall lamps and a throw rug: things left behind just to keep the walls in check. The model of Bodie lay on the floor where he’d left it. A windmill had fallen over. A half-finished barn, too.
Guy placed the bag of a hundred thousand match tips at the foot of the couch and walked to the balcony door. He slapped his legs, sending ice crystals jumping from his pants and into the carpet. The snow was halfway up the glass door, but he could see over it to the golf course. Nearer, he could discern the Piedmont’s house and the warm candlelight that disappeared if he stared at it directly. Snow began to fall. He could make out the slow flutter that seemed not to fall from the sky but from the street lights, swirling away on the faint shivers of air to distribute over the land.
He felt no initiative to call the police and find out what was going on at the Piedmont’s. Rather, he wondered briefly why they had decided not to turn his house into a winter resting ground, these transients, winter canaries with their candlelight, their song, healthy and full of humor.
Guy eased into the couch and leaned his cane against the side. The room appeared enormous in the absence of any real furniture. He closed his eyes and remembered where the table had stood, the hutch and stereo. When he opened his eyes, there came the strange feeling that someone had rushed in during the brief pause and stolen his belongings.
Thoughts of late came around again; about his age, how the most reassuring sensation of living was the presence of others. He’d also been considering how these people—Sandra, Fargas, Jason and Maris—had been thrown together due to geology and bad luck, and how nothing could ease those pressures better than the bliss of a little space provided by a little money.
He himself wanted a definitive place to grow old and pass on, not the ambivalence of place the gas seepage had caused. It seemed such a womanish thing, he thought, but he also wanted prodigy, grandkids who would not grow up hearing only names to go with the photographs. He wanted to tell them stories, have them hear all that is important in life when life shows its shallow bottom to the storyteller; when fish can be seen free of glare and murkiness, the fibs of monster trout proved fibs. To tell them where the flat rocks that skipped wonderfully a dozen or more times across the water’s surface have really gone.
He brought his feet up onto the couch and lay flat. He let the following game play out in his head: If he felt an earthquake, if the slightest shiver rocked the house, he would light a match and let the physics of combustion play out. These were the furnishings of his thoughts, nothing comfortable, nothing light enough to move.
In his vacillation between sleep and sensing, he thought another wish, and this was for the gas to take him now, in his slumber, in the dreamed of dying that could slip him quickly into death’s pocket. The kind that stirs admiration and envy, the natural death, as though any other could be artificial.
Or better yet—what a respite—to have those young people next door barrel into his house with their noise, their drunken confidence, and he there with all the matches in the world for their candles. He’d drink with them and then share his feelings while they still remained at that listening age. That time when death first creeps into knowledge, but the false knowledge, that dark music and poetry genre ringed with denial by being a lifestyle, a communion, a color. Life, he’d tell them. No one’s yet survived it. They’d laugh at this joke, hand him a bottle, their lips wet, their breaths smoky, their faces shiny with denial.
No, he thought, he wouldn’t be able to tell them a thing. He didn’t want to be the one to ruin that precious irrecoverable virginity.
One arm slung down to the carpet and found the side of the bag. In the dark, his fingers uncreased the top of the sack, touched the matchbooks, and dug deep. He imagined his hand penetrated an ants’ nest, each red tip crawling thousands deep, thousands wide. He could name some matchbooks by touch. His mind plundered through the visions of a myriad hotel rooms. Soft beds, hard, vibratory. Or the hum of ice machines, kitchen clatter, swept credit cards. The views. How much business had all this incurred? He could not remember. He recollected the hotels better than any meetings he’d had, each room linking in the corridors of his mind like one mansion of sleep.
The couch swayed. He stared at the ceiling, but did not move. A few hours later, he thought he felt another slight quiver, but he told himself it was from the beating of his heart. Later, sitting on the toilet, he felt a gentle rocking, but he relieved himself like any midnight trip, pretending to think only of sleep.
But he felt himself resolutely unfooled as he reclined once more on the couch. Oh, he thought, why does the regret not go away? But he knew it wasn’t exactly regret he felt, for if he knew what lay so distant from possible reconciliation—what it was he regretted—he could move to some kind of consolation.
There were mornings when, despite the old visage that stared back half-shaved, he could say he felt young inside, like the fresh blood rising from old nicks. No, that feeling would be a lie now. Why wasn’t he like the old men he’d seen when he was young? Couldn’t he be carefree one day, a complaining grouch the next, throwing out gibberish facts, throwing out the jabber of politics. No thoughts on death but to say, as acquaintances passed on, that they passed on, have gone away, were taken, like some fall attraction packed up for the winter. The circus, or a seaside snack shop.
After all these years, so few really, he still had the same little heart flutters of fear. It was this, not regret, that he meant. Work had not put it to rest, nor remarriage, nor rising as far from the earth as he could take himself, pretending he was bound elsewhere. No, he cared only for those around him now. No charity or humbleness, this giving and forgiving—necessary, not noble.
He ran a fingernail across the back of a matchbook, first slowly, then quickly, so he could hear the sound.
Central California. The last room in the mansion of slumber.
During the first year at the men’s correctional facility, Guy looked forward to sleep, to the dream geography which would take him out of his past into an alternative present. In one dream, he made it back to the Mammoth airport and the rented Cessna. He felt the controls in his hand exactly as they were, the pressing back in the seat on the climb and there, down to his left, the smoldering ashes of his past. In the best of dreams, he and the Cessna would make it as far as Owens Dry Lake. He’d set the plane down with an empty tank and walk out across the mineral heaven, never turning around.
Walking has become worse for Guy, especially in the mornings. His bad leg bothers him even more in the winter, when the prison carries the damp and the mornings allow arms of the thick Salinas fog to stretch over the compound.
There are no mirrors in the cubicle-like rooms of the men’s correctional facility. Instead, Guy’s introspection has turned to what he can see of himself from his own eyes, the downward inspections of his arms and legs. The cartography of his once broad stomach has lost relief, leaving behind a smaller pouch like a drumlin after the passage of almost seventy years of meals and drink. He is beginning to forget how his body once was, any old athleticism like an Icarus dream constantly falling into a sea of disbelief. Verbs like dash and sprint seem so flagrant to a body where every other common movement is well-felt, the little pains and internal pinches almost taking on a personality of their own.
These movements of self-inspection give him the look of some old zoo attraction, and he feels this himself. He remembers the animals down at the San Diego Zoo, those primates that caused a stir back in the ‘60’s for the reason of having babies, or assaulting a guest through the bars, or just for being the species of space’s latest traveler. He can easily recall the looks of those animals holding their arms before them, staring with a look that people read as a longing for the African veldt and some primitive tree-born freedom, but which Guy now believes is but a stare with nothing particular at the end of it.
Zoos. The men’s correctional facility is minimum security, so there aren’t any bars, except at the end of the halls. But still, there is the same terrain around him, the attempt to supply him with the playthings of leisure: a tennis court, lawns, spaces to jog. Except the clay court is colored concrete with no net, no rackets, no balls. Everything easy to clean by the spray of a high power hose. And always the fence. Along one side of it runs an irrigation ditch, separating Guy’s side from the fields of alfalfa. On cool nights, like this night, the sea breezes make it over the mountains and across the dry hills, releasing the odor of salt and bringing on their movement the sometimes-sound of water in the ditch, the faint gurgle flowing down and down again. Guy helps himself reach sleep by picturing the water, pretending a stream, not a ditch of a thousand reclaimated flushes, flows past. He imagines where it joins with other streams and broadens out into other rivers, making it, finally, to the sands of some California beach. The only memory of this journey are the grains of sand in Guy’s eyes when he wakes in the mornings.
He spends his day constructing the town. He uses past issues of National Geographic from the library, unbinding them by hand. He prefers pages with mostly photographs. He bends the pages gingerly, running his thick thumbnail along the smooth fold. Each crease forms the angle of a wall, or a roof, or a curb. In this way, he has built up as much of the town of Julian as he can remember. He fashioned Main Street with its tight bundle of shops and then he constructed homes that grew and grew so that they became disproportional to Main Street. For detail, like a window dressing, Guy uses the thin cheap paper of an anachronistic news magazine. When Sandra comes on her monthly visits, she brings him tape. The day after her visits, he goes to work repairing the popped up roofs and shambling walls of the town. Toward the end of the month he begins to ration, slicing the tape in thirds as he attempts to keep the paper town together. With every new building, he imagines the stories by which the town took shape and thinks of the paper-thin security of his own life.
He has the town laid out on an empty bookshelf above his head. At night, he stares up from his pillow at the shelf, knowing that the town lies on the other side. It is as though he is gazing upward from deep underground. But he’s never felt sorry for himself or for what he tried to do. There are those worse off. Some nights, he can hear the high tinny whimper of a woman. The embezzler, several cubicles down, has an audio tape of his wife climaxing which he plays repetitively through his headphones, leaving them off his ears enough to let the others hear, as though to make them jealous.
Guy has read more in the past few years than in his entire life. History, poetry, novels. In one essay, someone said novels are always much smarter than their writers. This has stuck with Guy as a revelation of his problem, trying to make himself something he never was: exuberant, knowledgeable, when all along his life was breaking down, finding trouble, limping.
And so he spent the last year thinking as little of himself as possible, only telling himself stories of the others, of Sandra, Maris, Jason and Fargas—working out their thoughts, their troubles, discovering they were all he cared for in himself.
On Sandra’s conjugal visits, the two of them retire to a room to be alone. There, she tells him what is new. By these contacts, his thoughts, and the letters he has received, he’s taped together the missing years.
Maris. She surprised him with a letter three weeks after the sentencing. He had only met her several times. She wrote plain and direct, and in her words he saw he was not an arsonist or thief, but an ear. She taught arts and crafts at a community college in the Arizona desert. She continued to carve ice. The desert appealed to her, she wrote, because the ice melts faster. Every month he receives another letter. Gradually, though, the events she retells have become more foreign to him. The mention of the other people in his life—and hers at one time—have nearly ceased, the letters written almost by the hand of a stranger. This is one thing that washes the sand from his eyes, staring up at the underside of Julian.
From Sandra, he heard that Jason works as a bartender on a San Diego—Avalon ferry. Guy imagines him cleaning glasses and chatting with the passengers as the boat makes its way to Catalina Island. Not a bad life, he thinks, especially from where he’s sitting.
Then there is Fargas, who has returned to Alaska and writes at intervals which Guy can only discern as being purely random. In these soliloquies, there is much that is unsaid, but which Guy imagines. In Fargas he saw something of himself, a son who was as much in the know in matters of being and love, but so much younger than he to come to that revelation. Did this mean Fargas had the same depression as himself, only protracted, or was Fargas able to reach beyond to a better understanding, one Guy felt he himself had too late begun working towards? After all, he had divorced with near-grown kids, when everyone on the outside thought his life was good, happy and content.
On good days, Guy sits outside away from the buildings, leaving enough distance from the fence that the hills climb over the top, unobstructed by the weave of containment. He pictures the mountains in Alaska and the ship and Fargas sitting inside at a grand piano. He imagines the ship is within the three mile land limit and the casino is closed. Fargas deviates from the cruise ship repertoire. He plays something slow and hushed, Summertime, and looks out over the piano to the dining room, empty, dead, each table holding a lamp with tea candles burning and burning, long after they’ve run out of wax. Guy hopes there is a woman somewhere waiting for his son. Maybe she is pregnant so he will marry and learn to love. Then there will be this child, this bloodline. Guy can only wish this by also hoping that the grandson or daughter stays a little dull in the head—thinks only of happiness, of education, career and money, sex, spouse, vacation, retirement, heaven and isn’t it too bad that so and so has passed on?
For awhile, he was able to return to this mode by marrying Sandra. But then his love for her—which itself had sent an older amour into amnesia— grew forgetful, pushed out by new feelings. He remembers the feeling of waking in the mornings with this woman young enough to be his daughter. In his heart he wasn’t filled with love or luck, but rather with jealousy for the unlived years she had on him. Years seemingly hoarded within her and which, despite the closeness of their bodies, he could never reach inside and grab as his own. Like matter and anti-matter canceling each other out, leaving him the exasperation of a property he could never possess.
Yet now, nearly a month from her last visit, he loved her more. Her story was the only one he told himself, everyone else far-flung, past tense.
He remembers how they met, a company party outside a hanger. She’d dripped mayonnaise on her blouse and he’d thought it was bird shit. She had dipped her finger in it and licked it, saying mayonnaise. The first time he heard her voice. The first word. They stood in the metallic shade. For a week, the meeting had stayed in his mind, mostly out of a kind of disgust. Then the disgust wore off, but the image of her stayed and he began walking corridors just to bump into her.
At this moment she is no more than fifty miles away in some motel, perhaps sharing the same insomnia. Tomorrow, he will see her again. But rather than retire to the private rooms in some mournful mix of talk and stare and sex, he will leave with her and she will drive him from this place. Nearly three years now, and such a day as tomorrow he’s never imagined possible. The heart pangs, the breathlessness and decay always make him suspicious of being able to leave. As though admitting to himself that he’s on the cusp of returning to a world he hasn’t touched or seen for a thousand days and nights will be construed as some kind of punishable hubris.
He remembers his last real freedom. He set the familiar paper bag in the center of the living room and listened to the fire of matches rage in a thousand small spurts of power. The flames ran along the carpet and blackened one wall, touching the curtain already once singed, but going beyond, into full inflammable bloom. The smoke was thick and sulfurous. He hobbled back down the stairs to the door and pushed it open with his cane, closing the door the same way from the other side. He stepped through the dark sky and white ground to the street of snow. There, he stood and watched the glow in the windows. In his heart, he felt a sputter of horror and glee, of tragedy and triumph, and the irrecoverable sense of action.
The way the windows lit up was beautiful, and the beauty spread from room to room. Then the windows blackened and began shattering in high sounds of bursting. The house transformed itself; the fire within becoming the fire outside. The skeleton of the house began to show, first in a side wall, then along the roof, all the while growing more and more hollow.
He barely heard the car pull up beside him. He turned only after a door opened and he saw Fargas climb out, then Jason on the other side. They stood beside him, watching the house, and he could see the fire in their eyes. Never before had they seemed so alive to him.
“Oh,” Fargas said, drawing out the word until it was lost beneath the snapping of the fire. “You did it,” he said.
“He did,” Jason said.
Someone put an arm on his shoulder and for a moment it seemed congratulatory. He felt as though he and the sons at his sides should leave. That like the smoke and flames, they too should rise above the snowy ground and into the air, all hot gas and energy, up into the only diaspora left in the west. And he sincerely waited for the gravity to release and for them to float slowly upward, like the ruler-sized shards of roof shingles that rose all aglow, spinning and cutting their way through the smoke. He judged the heaviness at his waist, at his knees, his ankles, and in his feet. He stood several feet back, as though the heat on his face were somehow pressing him with additional weight. He could hear doors slamming and he turned to see the teenagers from the Piedmont’s house jump into their car. An engine whined, headlights flicked on, one bright, one out, and the car sped past them into town as though in fear. His sons stood and did not move, not then and not when the distant cry of a siren rose from the city, threading invisibly closer on its own purpose.
Morning comes. At breakfast, Guy eats everything and now and again shakes hands with some other mild con or acquaintance. The man with the cassette is trying to barter for batteries. He offers cigarettes, a little dope, his face showing a desperation that makes the men laugh.
Back in his cubicle, Guy begins packing his few belongings together as a guard comes in, knocking his knuckles silently on the inside of the brick partition.
“Hey Guy,” he says, before moving on. “Your lucky day.”
Guy packs his few books into his bag, a couple Russian novels from Sandra and a book of poems by Rumi from Maris. He places Maris’ rubber-banded letters, the early ones, along the side of the books. Then he holds the bag beneath the shelf and sweeps the paper town of Julian inside before zippering the bag closed. All this he slings together over his shoulder. He can feel the contents shift inside, the models flattening and gaining new folds despite his hopes of keeping them intact.
With this heaviness on his shoulder, he begins walking. As he nears the first gate, a sliver of optimism rises unconsciously, like adrenaline in times of fear or pursuit. He senses his heart feeling giddy, and pulls his bad leg along fast enough so that he walks as quickly as when he was young.
He wonders what Sandra will be wearing and how close she has to be to hear him say he loves her. If he knows anything, it is that those words will be enough. Enough to hold him over as they drive south into the enormous world of other temporary tales; enough when he wakes with her beside him, the feeling of her hand in his morning-numbed palm faint, but the weight there, the warmth of any true thing that remains. ◆