There is proud happiness, happiness born of doing good work in the light of day, years of worthwhile labour, and afterward being tired, and content, and surrounded by family and friends, bathed in satisfaction and ready for a deserved rest – sleep or death, it would not matter.
Then there is the happiness of one’s personal slum. The happiness of being alone, and tipsy on red wine, in the passenger seat of an ancient recreational vehicle parked somewhere in Alaska’s deep south, staring into a scribble of black trees, afraid to go to sleep for fear that at any moment someone will get past the toy lock on the RV door and murder you and your two small children sleeping above.
Josie squinted into the low light of a long summer evening at a rest stop in southern Alaska. She was happy this night, with her pinot, in this RV in the dark, surrounded by unknown woods, and became less afraid with every new sip from her yellow plastic cup. She was content, though she knew this was a fleeting and artificial contentment, she knew this was all wrong – she should not be in Alaska, not like this. She had been a dentist and was no longer a dentist. The father of her children, an invertebrate, a loose- boweled man named Carl, a man who had told Josie marriage-by-documentation was a sham, the paper superfluous and reductive, had, 18 months after he’d moved out, found a different woman to marry him. He’d met and now was, improbably, impossibly, marrying some other person, a person from Florida. It was happening in September, and Josie was fully justified in leaving, in disappearing until it was all over. Carl had no idea she had taken the children out of Ohio. Almost out of North America. And he could not know. And what could better grant her invisibility than this, a rolling home, no fixed address, a white RV in a state with a million other wayward travellers, all of them in white RVs? No one could ever find her. She’d contemplated leaving the country altogether, but Ana didn’t have a passport and Carl was needed to get one, so that option was out. Alaska was at once the same country but another country, was almost Russia, was almost oblivion, and if Josie left her phone and used only cash – she’d brought three thousand dollars in the kind of velvet bag meant to hold gold coins or magic beans – she was untraceable, untrackable. And she’d been a Girl Scout. She could tie a knot, gut a fish, start a fire. Alaska did not daunt her.
She and the kids had landed in Anchorage earlier that day, a grey day without promise or beauty, but the moment she’d stepped off the plane she found herself inspired. “OK, guys!” she’d said to her exhausted, hungry children. They had never expressed any interest in Alaska, and now here they were. “Here we are!” she’d said, and she’d done a celebratory little march. Neither child smiled.
She’d piled them into this rented RV and had driven off, no plan in mind. The manufacturers called the vehicle the Chateau, but that was 30 years ago, and now it was broken-down and dangerous to its passengers and all who shared the highway with it. But after a day on the road, her kids were fine. They were strange. There was Paul, eight years old, with the cold caring eyes of an ice priest, a gentle, slow-moving boy who was far more reasonable and kind and wise than his mother. And there was Ana, only five, a constant threat to the social contract. She was a green-eyed animal with a burst of irrationally red hair and a knack for assessing the most breakable object in any room and then breaking it with incredible alacrity.
Josie, hearing the roar of a truck passing through on the nearby highway, poured herself a second cup. This is allowed, she told herself, and closed her eyes.
But where was the Alaska of magic and clarity? This place was choked with the haze of a dozen forest fires, spread around the state like a prison break, and it was not majestic, no, not yet. All they’d seen so far was cluttered and tough. They’d seen seaplanes. They’d seen hundreds of homes for sale. They’d seen a roadside ad for a tree farm looking for a buyer. They’d seen another RV, not unlike theirs, parked on the side of the road, under a high sheer mountain wall. The mother of the family was squatting on the side of the road. They’d seen lacquered log cabin homes. They’d seen in a convenience store also made of lacquered logs, a T-shirt that said Don’t blame me. I voted for the American.
So where were the heroes? All she knew where she had come from were cowards. No, there was one brave man, and she’d helped to get him killed. One courageous man now dead. Everyone took everything and Jeremy was dead. Find me someone bold, she asked the dark trees before her. Find me someone of substance, she demanded of the mountains beyond.
Alaska had been on her mind only a few weeks before she’d decided to leave Ohio. She had a stepsister, Sam, up in Homer, a stepsister who was not quite a stepsister, and who she hadn’t seen in years but who had held great mystique because she lived in Alaska, and owned her own business, and piloted a boat or ship of some kind, and had raised two daughters largely alone, her husband a fisherman gone for months at a time. To hear Sam tell it, he was no prize and his absences no great loss.
Josie had never been to Alaska and outside of Homer had no idea where to go or what to do there. But she wrote to Sam, telling her she was coming, and Sam wrote her back, saying that was fine. Josie took this as a good sign, that her stepsister who she hadn’t seen in five years just said “fine” and did no kind of beseeching or encouraging. Sam was an Alaskan now, and that meant, Josie was sure, a plain-spoken and linear existence centred around work and trees and sky, and this kind of disposition was what Josie craved in others and herself. She wanted no more of the useless drama of life. If theatrics were necessary, fine. If a human were ascending a mountain, and on that ascent there were storms and avalanches and bolts of lightning from angry skies, then she could accept drama, participate in drama. But suburban drama was so tiresome, so absurd on its face, that she could no longer be around anyone who thought it real or worthwhile.
So they flew up and found their baggage and then found Stan. He owned the recreational vehicle she had rented – the Chateau – and he was standing outside baggage claim, holding a sign with Josie’s name on it. He was as she imagined him – a retired man in his seventies, hearty and with a way of swinging his hands, as if they were heavy things, bunches of bananas, he was delivering. They loaded their luggage into the vehicle and were off. Josie turned around to look at her children. They looked tired and unclean. “Cool, huh guys?” she asked, indicating the Chateau’s environs, a patchwork of plaids and wood veneers. Stan was white-haired and wore ironed jeans and clean powder-blue sneakers. Josie sat in the front seat, the children in a banquette in back, as they drove the 10 miles from the airport to Stan’s house, where the paperwork for the Chateau would be done. Ana was soon asleep against the horizontal blinds. Paul smiled wanly and closed his ice-priest eyes. Stan adjusted his rearview mirror to see them, and seeing them through Stan’s eyes, Josie knew they did not look like her children. They were mismatched to her and to each other. Josie’s hair was black, Paul’s khaki, Ana’s red. Josie’s eyes were brown and small, Paul’s enormous and blue, Ana’s green and shaped like paisleys.
When they arrived in Stan’s driveway, he parked the Chateau and the kids were invited to play in the yard. Ana immediately went to a large tree with a hole in the trunk and stuck her hand in. “Look, I got a baby!” she yelled, holding an invisible baby.
“Sorry,” Josie said.
Stan nodded gravely, as if Josie had said My child is demented and incurable. He got out the owner’s manual and went through the functions of the RV with the seriousness of someone explaining the dismantling of a bomb. There was the oven, the speedometer, odometer, bathroom, cleanout, electrical hook-up, various levers and cushions and hidden compartments.
“You’ve operated a recreational vehicle before,” he said, as if there could be no other answer.
“Of course. Many times,” Josie said. “And I used to drive a bus.”
She’d never done either, but sensed that Stan took the Chateau seriously but not so much Josie. She had to instil in him some confidence that she wouldn’t drive the Chateau off a cliff. He led her around the vehicle, noting the pre-existing damage on a clipboard, and as he did, Josie saw a boy of about six in the bay window of Stan’s home, staring out at them. The room where he stood seemed to be entirely white – white walls, white wall- to-wall carpet, a white lamp on a white table. Soon a grandmotherly woman, likely Stan’s wife, arrived behind the boy, put her hands on his shoulders, turned him around and guided him back into the depths of the house.
Josie expected, after the inspection, that she and the kids would be invited into the home, but they were not.
“See you in three weeks,” Stan said, for that was the duration they’d agreed on. Josie thought the trip might be extended, for a month or indefinitely, and figured she’d call Stan when that became clearer.
“OK,” Josie said, and got into the driver’s seat. She pulled the long arm, extending from the steering wheel like an antler, down to reverse, unable to shake the sense that the plan had been to invite her and the kids inside, but something had convinced Stan to keep them away from his pristine white house and grandson.
“Drive safe now,” he said, waving his banana hands.
They had three days to kill before Sam was back from one of her tours. She was taking a group of French executives into the woods to look at birds and bears, and wouldn’t be back till Sunday. Josie planned to spend a day or two in Anchorage, but when she drove through the city, the Chateau creaking and shuddering, she saw a street fair, and thousands of people in bright tanktops and sandals, and she wanted to flee. They left the metropolis, going south, and soon encountered signs for an animal park of some kind. Most popular attraction in Alaska was the claim. Just when Josie was sure they would pass the attraction without Ana being made aware, Paul spoke.
“Animal park,” he said to Ana.
His ability to read had greatly complicated their family.
The kids wanted badly to go, and Josie wanted badly to speed past the attraction, but the signs had mentioned bears and bison and moose, and the idea that they could cross all these mammals from their list in the first few hours held some appeal.
They pulled over.
“You need your jacket,” Paul said to Ana, who was already at the Chateau door. Paul held it out to her like a butler would. “Hold your sleeves so they don’t bunch,” he said. Ana held her shirt-sleeves and slipped her arms into the jacket. Josie watched all this, feeling superfluous.
Inside a log-cabin office, Josie paid a criminal amount, $66 for the three of them. There were usually guides and carts that would drive guests around the premises, but everyone was gone or vacationing, so Josie and the kids were alone in what seemed to be a zoo after an apocalypse. She thought of the Iraqi zoo after the coalition’s bombings, the lions and cheetahs roaming free but starving, looking for cats and dogs to eat, and finding neither.
This was not so bad. But it was sad like any zoo is sad, a place where no one really wants to be. The humans feel guilty about being there at all, crushed by thoughts of capture and captivity and bad food and drugs and fences. And the animals barely move. They saw a pair of moose, and their new calf, none of them stirring. They saw a single sleeping bison, its coat threadbare, its eyes half-open and furious. They saw an antelope, spindly and stupid; it walked a few feet before stopping to look forlornly into the grey mountains beyond. Its eyes said, Take me, Lord. I am now broken.
They returned to the log cabin for refreshments. “Check it out,” a tour guide said to Josie’s kids as they drank lemonade. He pointed to a mountain range nearby, where, he said, there was a rare thing: a small group of bighorn sheep, cutting a horizontal line across the ridge, east to west. “Use the binoculars,” he said, and Paul and Ana raced to a stationary set, anchored to the deck.
“I see them,” Paul said. As Paul ceded the binoculars to Ana, Josie squinted into the distance, finding the group, a smattering of vague white dots against the mountainside. It was a baffling thing, seeing 12 or 15 animals standing comfortably on what seemed to be a clean vertical wall. Josie took a turn at the binoculars, found the sheep and in the sky saw a dark shadow slashing across their path. She assumed it was a hawk of some kind, so she swung the binoculars around but found nothing. She returned to the sheep, finding one in particular that seemed to be looking right back at her. The sheep looked very pleased with its life, hadn’t a care in the world, even though it was standing on a quarter-inch of shelf, 2000 feet up. Josie adjusted the focus a bit, now seeing the sheep even more clearly, and as she locked into a wonderfully clear view of the animal, two things happened in rapid succession.
First, the clouds above the sheep seemed to break, parting as if to allow a narrow ray of godlight to shine on the animal’s downy head. Josie could see the animal’s bright grey eyes, its feathery cotton-white hair, and as Josie was staring at the sheep, and the sheep at Josie, as it was showing Josie what unadulterated bliss was, revealing the secrets of its uncomplicated life high above everything – as this was happening, a dark shape entered Josie’s view. A dark wing. This was a predatory bird, enormous, its wingspan wide and opaque like a black umbrella. And then the bird dropped down and its talons took the sheep by the shoulders, lifted it just a few inches up and away from the cliff, and released it. The sheep fell from view. Josie stood, and with her naked eyes watched the sheep as it descended from the mountain, oblivious and unstruggling, like a ragdoll steadily falling to an unseeable place of rest.
“Eagle,” the guide said, then whistled appreciatively. “Wonderful, wonderful.” He explained that this was a common but rarely seen method eagles used to kill large prey: an eagle would lift and drop an animal from great heights, allowing the prey to fall a few hundred feet to its death on the rocks below, breaking every bone. Then the eagle would sail down, grab the dead animal in whole or in pieces, and bring its flesh back to its children for consumption. “Why did you want us to see that?” Josie asked the guide, knowing it would haunt her thoughts, would scar her children, but the guide was gone.
“What happened, Mama?” Ana asked. Paul had heard and understood the guide’s narration, and Josie was sorry he knew the treachery of every level of the animal world, but was grateful that Ana was free, for now, from such knowledge.
“Nothing,” Josie said. “Let’s go.”
It was best, she told the kids, to get out of the Anchorage area, to really leave, to strike out and make their own path. So they stopped at a grocery store and loaded up. The store was 20 acres, it did not end; it sold stereos, lawn furniture, wigs, guns, gasoline. It was full of truckers, some large families, some people who seemed of Native blood, some weathered Caucasians, everyone looking very tired. Josie bought enough groceries for a week, stored them as best she could in the Chateau’s particle-board cabinets, and left.
The speed limit on most highways in Alaska seemed to be 65, but the Chateau would not exceed 48. It took inordinately long to get to 40, and 10 minutes of asthmatic heaving to get from 40 to 47, and after that the whole assembly seemed ready to pull apart like an exploding star. So for the first few hours Josie drove at 48, while the traffic around her was going 20 miles faster. On two-lane roads, there were usually four or six cars behind her, honking and cursing until Josie could find a wide shoulder where she could pull over, allow them all to pass and then get back on the road, knowing in five minutes she would accumulate another line of angry followers. Stan had said nothing about any of this.
She’d made the kids sandwiches, and served them on actual plates, and now they were finished and wanted to know where to put the plates. She told them to put them on the counter, and at the next stoplight the plates fell to the ground, breaking and sending the remnants of lunch to every Chateau nook and cranny. The trip had begun.
Josie knew nothing about Seward, but it was somewhere near Homer, so she decided that would be their destination for the day. They drove an hour or so, and found some brutally gorgeous bay, the water a hard mirror, white mountains rising beyond like a wall of dead presidents. Josie pulled over, just for a picture or two, but already everything inside the vehicle was filthy – the floor was muddy, there were clothes and wrappers strewn about, and most of Ana’s chips were on the floor. Josie felt a sudden exhaustion come over her. She pulled the blinds, let the kids watch Tom and Jerry – in Spanish, it was the only DVD they’d brought, leaving in a hurry as they did – and on their little machine they watched the cartoons as trucks hammered past them, each giving the Chateau a gentle rocking. Twenty minutes later the children were asleep and she was still awake.
She moved into the passenger seat, opened a twist-off pinot, poured herself a cup, and settled in with a copy of Old West magazine. Stan had left five copies in the Chateau – a 40-year-old magazine offering TRUE TALES OF THE OLD WEST. In it there was a column called “Trails Grown Dim”, where readers would send in requests for information about long-lost kin.
“In the Republic of Texas census of 1840,” read one, “is word of Thomas Clifton of Austin County with the statement that he owned 349 acres of land. I would like to hear from any of his descendants.” That was signed by one Reginald Hayes. Josie considered Mr Hayes, feeling for him, imagining the fascinating legal battles he had in store when he tried to reclaim those 349 Austin County acres.
“Perhaps someone could help us locate my mother’s sisters,” the next entry read, “the daughters of Walter Loomis and Mary Snell. My mother Bess was the oldest. She last saw her sisters in Arkansas in 1926. There was Rose, Mavis and Lorna. My mother, a wanderer, didn’t write and has never heard from them since. We would love to hear from anyone knowing about them. They would be in their fifties now, I believe.”
The rest of the page was filled with half-told stories of abandonment and distress, and the occasional hint of larceny or homicide.
“David Arnold died in Colorado in 1912 and was buried in McPherson, Kansas,” read the page’s last item. “A wife and four children survived him. Two daughters are now living, I believe. Would like a copy of his obituary for family records or would like to know where he died and if murder was ever proved. Also, was it ever proved that the deaths of his two sons in 1913 were tied in with his murder? He was my great-uncle.”
Josie filled her cup again. She put the magazine down and looked out the window. A smile spread across her lips. Being so far from Carl and his crimes made her smile. She and Carl had parted ways a few years into his phase of heavy urination. Extraordinary, unprecedented frequency. He had been a healthy man! Maybe not a man who could carry her across the threshold – he was thin, she was not so thin – but still an active non-consumptive man with two arms, two legs, a flat stomach. So why did he piss all night and all day? The image of Carl that came to mind, now 18 months after their split, was of him standing, a wide stance, at the toilet, the door open, waiting to piss. Or actually pissing. Or shaking after pissing. Unzipping before or after pissing. Changing his plaid housepants because he didn’t shake well enough after pissing and had dribbled on them and they now smelled like piss. Pissing twice in the early morning. Pissing six or seven times after dinner. Pissing all day. Getting out of bed three times every night to piss.
It’s your prostate, Josie told him.
You’re a dentist, he told her.
Early on they decided not to tell people Carl had been a patient when they’d met. Explaining it all rendered it all too pedestrian – he was looking to get his teeth cleaned and looked online for local dentists. Her office was the only one with a last-minute opening. For any feeling human, would that qualify as romantic? She barely noticed him during the exam. Then, a few weeks later, she was at Foot Locker, looking for socks, when a man, a customer sitting below her, one hand in a shoe, looked up and said hello. She had no idea who he was. But he was handsome, with alabaster skin, green eyes and long lashes.
“I’m Carl,” he said, removing his hand from the shoe and offering it to her. “From the dentist’s office.”
He laughed a long while, as if the idea of a job at Foot Locker, for anyone, was the greatest joke. “No. No, I don’t work here,” he said.
He was four years younger than Josie and had the energy of a housebound puppy. For a year it was fun. She was a year into her own practice, and he helped out, ran errands, hung pictures in the waiting room, kept everything manic and light. He liked to ride bikes. To get ice cream. To play kickball. He ate chocolate power bars from crinkly gold wrappers. His libido was unstoppable, his control nonexistent. She was dating a 12-year-old.
But he was 27. He was not gainfully employed then, and had never had a steady job before or since. His father owned some immeasurable stretch of Costa Rica, which he’d clear-cut to make room for cows destined to be eaten by American and Japanese carnivores, and so any occupation involving a scale less grand somehow did not quite suit Carl.
“We’ve raised a dilettante,” Luisa, his mother, said. She was Chilean by birth, raised in Santiago, her mother a doctor, her father a diplomat, also a depressive. She’d met Carl’s red-haired American father, Lou, in Mexico City, when she was a graduate student. She’d had Carl and his two brothers while Lou, raised in an oil family, bought land in Costa Rica, razed forests, raised cows, built an empire. He’d asked for a divorce 10 years before to marry the ex- wife of a well-known and dead Chiapan narco. Luisa and Lou had an improbably good relationship. “He’s so much better from a distance,” Luisa said.
Now she was a wizened, beautiful woman of 60, living on her own terms in Key West, with a group of sunburnt, day-drinking friends. When they met, Josie loved everything about her – her candour, her grim wit, her insights into Carl. “He inherited his father’s short attention span, but not his father’s vision.”
Carl had collected a dozen or so licences and skills. He was a realtor for a few years, though he sold nothing. He’d dabbled in furniture design, fashion, sport fishing. He had a closet full of photography equipment. Though Josie and Luisa were both obliged to love Carl, the tragedy was that they liked each other far more than either liked him.
“Last year he had me videotape him,” Luisa said in her raspy voice. “He’s still discovering his relationship to the world,” she said, “discovering his own body, you know. One day he asked me to film him walking – from the front, the back and the side. He said he wanted to be sure he walked the way he thought he walked. So I filmed my son, this grown man, walking up and down the street. He seemed satisfied with the results.”
“He’s prettier than you.” That’s what Sam said when she met Carl. “That can’t be good.” He could be fun. Cowards are often fantastically charming. But could anything begun at a Foot Locker become grand? Josie had never married Carl, and that was a story, a series of interconnected stories, episodes, decisions and reversals, both she and Carl culpable. Finally, with her strong endorsement, he’d left. At the time she was happy for it. Coward. Coward coward, she thought – it was the basic building block of his DNA, cowardice and whatever mutation had produced his gripless bowels. On so many levels he was a coward, but she had not anticipated the way he would disappear after he moved out. What had she wanted? She’d wanted general involvement, a monthly visit maybe, a father who would take the kids for a weekend. He was good enough with children – harmless around Ana, benign with Paul. He seemed to like children, really, thought he could make them laugh, and his juvenile outlook on life seemed to sync perfectly with theirs.
He was, years after they met, still a child, still discovering his relationship to the world, discovering his own body. One day he asked Josie to film him walking, too. Josie was shocked, but didn’t let on she knew Luisa had done the same thing. “I think I know how I walk, but I’ve never seen it objectively,” he said. “I want to make sure I walk the way I think I walk.” So Josie filmed this grown man walking up and down the street. But then, six months later, he was gone. He saw the kids twice the year he left, once the year after.
Now, at 40, Josie was tired. She was tired of her journey through a day, the limitless moods contained in any stretch of hours. There was the horror of morning, underslept, feeling she was on the precipice of something that felt like mono, the day already galloping away from her, her chasing on foot, carrying her boots. Then the brief upward respite after a second cup of coffee, when all seemed possible, when she wanted to call her father, her mother, reconcile, visit them with the kids, when, while driving the kids to school – jail the people who abandoned the manifest right to school buses – she instigated an all-car sing- along to the Muppets soundtrack, Life’s a Happy Song. Then, after the kids were gone, an 11-minute mood freefall, then more coffee, and more euphoria until the moment, arriving at her practice, when the coffee had worn off and she grew, for an hour or so, more or less numb, doing her work in a state of underwater detachment. There were the occasional happy or interesting patients, patients who were old friends, some talk of kids while picking at their wet mouths, the suction, the spitting. There were too many patients now, it was a runaway train. Her mind was continually occupied by the tasks before her, the cleanings and drillings, the work requiring precision, but over the years it had become far easier to do most of it without paying full attention. Her fingers knew their tasks and worked in close partnership with her eyes, leaving her mind to wander. Why had she bred with that man? Why was she working on a beautiful day? What if she left and never came back? They would figure it out. They would survive. She was not needed.
Sometimes she enjoyed people. Some of the children, some of the teenagers. The teenagers with promise, with a purity of face and voice and hope that could obliterate all doubt about humankind’s dubious motives and failures. There had been Jeremy, the best of them all. But Jeremy was dead. Jeremy, a teenager, was dead. He liked to say “No sweat.” The dead teenager had said “No sweat.”
Noon was the nadir. The noonday sun demanded answers, the questions obvious and dull and unanswerable. Was she living her best life? The feeling she should quit this, that the office was doomed, uninspired, that they were all better off anywhere else. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to throw it all away? Burn it all down?
Then lunch. Maybe outside, in some leafy courtyard, the smell of fluted ivy, with an old friend who had just screwed her carpenter. Screams of laughter. Admonishing looks from the other diners. A few sips from her friend’s chardonnay, then a handful of mints, and plans to go away for the weekend together, with kids, no, without kids, promises to send photos of the carpenter, to forward any suggestive texts he might send her.
The boost after the meal, the ascendant glow of one to three pm, The King and I coming loudly through every tiny speaker, the sense that their work, that dentistry, was important, that the whole practice was an integral part of the community – they had 1,100 patients and that was something, that was significant, these were families who counted on them for a crucial part of their well-being – and some fun when it was obvious to all that Tania, Josie’s most recent hire, had gotten laid at lunch and was abloom and smelling of animal sweat. Then 3:30 and utter collapse. The feeling of desolation and hopelessness, all was lost, what was this shit? Who were these shitty people who surrounded her? What was all this? This didn’t matter, and she still owed so much money on these machines, she was a slave to it all, who were these shitty employees who had no idea the vice-like grip all this debt had on her skull.
Then the relief of closing at five… or even leaving at 4.40. Finished at 4.40! The release while driving home, thinking of her bright little home, her filthy couch, the broom standing in the corner, guarding that which she’d swept last night but couldn’t bring herself to pick up and throw away. Wait. Maybe there would be new flowers in bloom in the backyard. Sometimes they appeared between nine and five. They could grow in a day, sprout and bloom! This she loved. Sometimes it happened. Pull into the driveway. No flowers, no new colours. Then open the door, say hello and goodbye to Estaphania, maybe write her a cheque, wanting to tell her how lucky she was to be paid this way, no taxes, cold cash, are you saving enough, Estaphania? You should be, given what I pay you under the table.
Then holding her children close, smelling their sweat, their matted hair, Ana showing some new weapon she’d made or found. The rebound while drinking some cabernet while cooking. The music on. Maybe dancing with the kids. Maybe letting them dance on the counter. Love their tiny faces. Love how much they love your liberality, your abandon, your fun. You are fun! You are one of the fun ones. With you every day is different, isn’t it? You are full of possibility. You are wild, you are wonderful, you are dancing, looking up, shaking your hair free, seeing Paul’s delight and horror and tentative smile – you are untethered, singing, now with your head down, your eyes closed, and then you hear something break. Ana has broken something. A plate, a hundred shards on the floor, and she won’t say sorry. Ana climbs down from the counter, runs, doesn’t help.
The collapse again. The feeling that your daughter is a deviant already and will only get worse. In a flash, you can see her as a feral adolescent, as a dirty-bomb teenager, a burst of invisible and spreading fury. Where is she now? She’s fled, not to her room but somewhere else, a closet, she always hides somewhere disturbing, a place befitting a German fairy tale. Believe strongly that the house is too small for all of you, that you should be living largely outdoors, in a yurt with a hundred acres around – wouldn’t it be better if the kids were outside, where nothing could be broken, where they could be kept busy hunting vermin and gathering firewood? The only logical option would be to move to a farm. A thousand-mile prairie. All this energy and these shrieking voices kept inside these small walls? It wasn’t sensible.
Then the headache, the blinding, the unspeakable. The stake being driven from the back of your head, coming out somewhere above the right ocular cavity. Ask Paul to find Tylenol. He comes back, there is no Tylenol in the house. And it’s too late to go to the store, not at dinnertime. Lie down while the rice is cooking. Soon Ana will come into the room. Hiss at her about the plate. Make some generalisation about her not caring for nice things, about her being reckless and never listening and never helping or cleaning. Watch Ana leave the room. Wonder if she’s crying. With great effort, your head a sinkhole swallowing some happy home, get up and walk to her room. She’s there. See her kneeling, hear her talking to herself, her hands on her Star Wars bedspread, unfazed, playing so sweetly, voicing Iron Man and Green Lantern, both of them sounding very kind, very patient in their lisping compassion. Know that she is indestructible, far stronger than you. Go to her, and see that she has already forgiven or forgotten, she is a battleship with no memory, so kiss her on the head, and the ear, and the eyes, and then it’s enough kissing, Ana will say, and she will push her mother away but her mother will defy this pushing-away, and will lift Ana’s shirt and kiss her stomach and hear Ana’s guttural laugh, and she will love Ana so much she can’t bear it. Bring Ana into the kitchen and put her on the counter again and let her check the rice while Paul is nearby. Hug Paul, too, finish your glass of wine and pour another and wonder if you are a better parent in all ways after a glass and a half of red wine. A tipsy parent is a loving parent, a parent unreserved in her joy, affection, gratitude. A tipsy parent is all love and no restraint.
A string of lights passed through the woods in front of her. Josie got out of the Chateau, the air faintly toxic from some unseen fire, and ran to the road, where she saw a convoy of fire trucks, red and chartreuse, racing by. The firefighters inside were only blurry silhouettes until the last truck, the seventh and smallest, where a face, in the second window, seemed to be looking into a tiny light, maybe some instrument panel, maybe his phone, but he was smiling, and he seemed so very happy, a young firefighter on his way somewhere, his helmet on. Josie waved to him like some European villager liberated in the Second World War, but he didn’t look up.
Anyway, she was done. With the town. With her practice, with ceramic fillings, with the mouths of the impossible. She was done, gone. She had been comfortable, and comfort is the death of the soul, which is by nature searching, insistent, unsatisfied. This dissatisfaction drives the soul to leave, to get lost, to be lost, to struggle and adapt. And adaptation is growth, and growth is life. A human’s choice is either to see new things, mountains, waterfalls, deadly storms and seas and volcanoes, or to see the same man-made things endlessly reconfigured. Metal in this shape, then that shape, concrete this way and that. People, too! The same emotions recycled, reconfigured, f--- it, she was free. Free of human entanglements! Stasis had been killing her, had in actuality turned her face numb. A year ago, during the start of the lawsuit spiral, her face had been numb for a month. She couldn’t explain it to anyone and in the emergency room they’d been stumped. But it had been real. There had been a month where her face was numb and she couldn’t get out of bed. When was that? A year ago, not a good year. A thousand reasons to leave the Lower 48, leave a country spinning its wheels, a country making occasional forays into progress and enlightenment but otherwise uninspired, otherwise prone to cannibalism, to eating the young and weak, to finger-pointing and complaint and distraction and the volcanic emergence of ancient hatreds. And leaving was made inevitable by the woman who had sued her for apparently causing her cancer or otherwise not holding back the tidal onslaught of carcinoma that would eventually kill her (but not yet). And there was Elias and Evelyn and Carl and his Goebbelsian plans. But most of all there was the young man, a patient since he was a child, who was now dead, because he’d said he was enlisting to build hospitals and schools in Afghanistan, and Josie had called him honourable and brave, and six months later he was dead and she could not wash the complicity from her. She did not want to think about Jeremy now, and there were no reminders of Jeremy here. No. But could she really be reborn in a land of mountains and light? It was a long shot.