Excerpt

“Briar Switch”

Elizabeth Tallent

November 23, 2015 
The following is from Elizabeth Tallent’s story collection, Mendocino Fire. Tallent is the author of the story collections Honey, In Constant Flight, and Time with Children, and the novel Museum Pieces. Since 1994 she has taught in the Creative Writing program at Stanford University. She lives on the Mendocino coast of California.

 

1

“Sure you want to go out in that?” he asks from his side of the counter, and in her frustration with his slowness to hand over the keys she says only, “I’m sure.” He says, “Because it’s really coming down,” and she says, “My father is dying,” immediately sorry to have marketed as explanation this truth no one should be able to bear, not her, not this stranger whose answer comes after a pause: “I’m sorry.” After another pause he says, “Lost my dad last year.” How distraught does she appear to his eyes, how likely to end up in a ditch? She discovers the necessary next utterance: “I’m sorry.” He says, paging through her paperwork, “Yeah, a year ago.” Mine is going to die tonight, and you’re keeping me from getting there, she thinks and does not say. Ten minutes earlier she stepped from the flow and thumbed her phone awake while disembarking passengers jostled past. She’d stood stock- still, taking in No messages, good news with a loophole, since it’s unclear, if he does die, how much time would elapse before her brother or sister would remember to call her, and if worst comes to worst—a phrase of her father’s—there will be an interval when the last-minute reconciliation she desires no longer has a chance of coming true, though she rushes toward it unknowing. Of all the catastrophes this night can conceivably hold, to fly toward him when he is already dead is the most desolating, and she has no means of ruling it out. The agent says, “Lung cancer,” and she wills patience into her response, saying, again, “I’m sorry,” then, meaning it, “Lung cancer is terrible,” suppressing What my father has, too, but maybe he detects their almost-comradeship in the bitterness with which she pronounced lung cancer, maybe that semblance of a bond appeases his doubt about her, because what he says next, left thumb anchoring the clipboard while his right fingertips pivot it to face her, is “Please sign by the X,” his voice spare, his professional affability chastened by cancer-awe and remembrance of his father, and she likes him for letting sadness show, thinking Not such a bad delay, scribbling her never- liked first name and the surname belonging to her father, not so much time lost, and if his questions have exceeded the normal agent-customer regimen, he must have felt obliged to rule out the intoxication implied by her haywire demeanor. She finds she’s relying tonight on the words and turns of phrase her father favors—or does she always, forgetting the language was his first, and what she owes? Haywire is a pet indictment of his, more than once aimed at her, and was it especially intractable to work with, the wire used to bind hay? They stand there ruled by the jolliness of Christmas music, between them, easily within her reach, the counter where the document packet waits, and the fob with the keys, and her California driver’s license with a ten-years-younger her, the red hair she had then causing people in his position to have to glance from the forty-three-year-old professor to the photo and back again, her credit card with its holograph of a dove whose wings, when the card tips one way, splay open, and when tipped the other, snap shut, an endlessly replicable optical caprice that had fascinated her sister’s son on her long-ago last visit when, for fear of seeming an intolerant, starchy aunt, she hadn’t stopped his rummaging through her wallet; he’d been set on keeping the card, and her sister had a terrible time getting it back from him, and the credit card’s each and every use recalls for her the fluster of her sister’s embarrassment and her own realization that she had set the boy up to get into trouble. The agent says, “I used to hide his cigarettes when I was a kid. Stop him smoking, was my plan. Like there aren’t a million boxes of Marlboros in the world.”

She has no time, and why is it her business to contradict the derision he directs at the futility of hiding those cigarettes—no, immodesty, that’s more precisely what he’s scorned, the child’s narcissism in believing he can save the father. But what is less deserving of scorn than a child’s desire to stave off death? If he could tolerate her saying such a thing aloud, she would say But that’s what I feel, why I need to get there, because I’m the one who can keep him from dying, they don’t think so but I’m the strong one, me, it’s me he needs, but no one hearing this would accept these as the truths of a person sane and competent, though they are, she insists on believing they are. She tells the agent, “You were just trying to help.” He takes off his glasses and then doesn’t know what to polish them on and so puts them back on again and re- gards her through them (possibly they are both suddenly a little bit aware of his glasses) and shakes his head to (she thinks) disavow or apologize for the nearness of tears, and because of those tears she is constrained to try to connect with him again, saying, “I am very sorry for your loss,” strange how the imperative for social accord persists in an emergency, she thinks, or does it only persist for women, and he says “Last winter,” and then, impressed, “Gosh, this is strange. A year ago today,” and she says “No” brightly, credulously, and he says, “That’s—I’d forgotten today is the day.” She says “My dad is down to hours” and hears how that sounds like a trivial and even heartless confirmation of the coincidence, allowing it to overshadow the individuality of the two deaths. The last thing her supremely private, exactingly rational father would want is for his death to be marveled at publicly, as half of a coincidence. Her father has never held back when offended, and two years ago rebuked some flippant political remark of hers with “You have a smart mouth on you,” the resulting lull broken by the clink of knives and forks laid against plates down the length of the Thanksgiving table, nobody willing to transgress against the stare he was directing at her by the assertion of immunity implicit in taking another bite any more than gazelles would have stuck their noses back down to graze after hearing a rustling in nearby grass, and when he said, “It’s amazing you ever got anywhere with that smart mouth,” their distress—her mother’s, her brother’s, her sister’s and sister’s husband’s and even the children’s—was more readily identifiable as an injury inflicted on people who did not deserve it than her own panic was, both because that panic, clenched, inarticulate, left her ashamed, and because whenever he believed she’d done something wrong some treacherous sliver of self sided with him and accepted his contempt, whereas she didn’t believe that the others at the table deserved what he was dishing out. Their quashed enjoyment of what was after all Thanksgiving prompted her to resistance—why should they feel afraid at their own table?—and returning his stare she had said, referring, as he had, to her recent hiring by a California university, suddenly hopeful, trusting that if she claimed the achievement with unabashed boldness he would have to concede its worth, “I did get somewhere,” and he had said, “And how long before you mess that up,” and the silence at the table extended two years, and could have lasted indefinitely, no word from her father (or mother, or sister, or brother), no word from her to anyone at home ever again (because couldn’t someone have said Dad, don’t?—weren’t they her family as much as his?), if the hospice worker had not called to tell her that her father had less than twenty-four hours to live. Whose decision was it, to call her at the very end, when, the hospice worker told her, He’s been fighting for a year? Again the screen of the phone she fishes from her pocket affirms: No messages.

The agent turns aside to the computer, clicks in swift bursts, swerves the mouse, replaces the keys on her paperwork with a different set, nods at her to take them. She does, and he says, “Upgraded you.”

“What?”

“Best vehicle we’ve got for snow like this.” He says unhappily, “What I should have advised you to take in the first place. So.”

But she ought to have known to request their best car for snow; it shouldn’t have been up to him to remedy her oversight. “Do you need my card again?”

“No, no. No additional cost. Just, this big guy is gonna get you there safe.”

Given his no doubt superior prowess at driving in snow, he’s offering to drive, his empathy turning proprietary, and she is about to protest when she gets it. This big guy is the vehicle. Embarrassed, she says, “Okay, thanks.” When that seems inadequate: “Really, thank you.”

“Good news is, the plows are out.”

Now that she’s holding the keys she risks asking, “Cars are getting through?” Earlier, in answer to one of his questions, she’d told him her destination, the small city her parents retired to.

“You have a shot,” he says. “Ever driven in a blizzard?”

“I grew up here.” She suppresses an impulse to account for turning up at his counter looking like she’s never heard of winter, in the shirt she was wearing when she answered the phone and it was the hospice worker, in the same black suit she’d worn teaching her seminar, ankle boots whose three-inch heels will be tricky in snow, no gloves, too-light raincoat. She says, “I learned to drive here. But it’s been a while.”

“You’ve got a full tank of gas,” he says. “Say you do get stuck, you’d run the heater for fifteen minutes, get nice and warm, then turn it off, wait till you couldn’t stand the cold before starting that engine again, and you’d want to watch the clock all night long, getting out once an hour to clear snow from the tailpipe—remember, once an hour. Highway patrol will reach you soon as they can.”

What they’re both thinking is, her father will die while she’s stuck in the snow, and she takes out her phone, bows her head for privacy, taps twice. No messages.

He says, “Hang on just a sec” and rummages under the counter before tearing the wrapping paper from a box and holding out a cap knitted in shambly stripes, olive and turquoise and pink and yellow and purple, saying, “So your ears won’t freeze off,” and she says, “You knew it was a hat?” and he grimaces and says, “Saw the work in progress,” and she says, “But somebody made this for you,” and he says, “If I wear it it’ll just encourage her,” and she dislikes this joke at the expense of the knitter, his coworker presumably, whose not-bad prank, the hat’s whimsy a comment on his sturdy blond, blue-eyed humorlessness, just lost its chance. The knitter, whoever she is, isn’t going to get to say Put it on! Oh come on! Put it on! He must pick up on her reluctance to accept the hat, because what he says next is “Take it for luck.” She makes the face you make when someone says a thing wrong enough to make you doubt all the right things they’ve said up till then, and he says, “I’m sorry, there’s no such thing as luck on a night like this, is there. I just mean—.” There’s a disconcerted tension between them before she commits, pulls on the hat, gives him the goofy smile he was supposed to give the knitter, and how could she do that, she asks herself, smile when her father is dying, and walks away fast while hidden speakers sing Angels we have heard on high—her phone, drawn again from an inside raincoat pocket, maintains No messages—and from his readiness to part with the hat, she guesses she’s done him a favor, because it suggested the gladness of a person shucking off an entanglement, a gladness whose unwilling witness she has been more than once, the most devastating occasion just last spring, sitting up in a hotel bed as her lover turned toward her from the window with a phone clasped to her ear while saying, promising, really, lightly, naturally promising into the phone I’ll be home tomorrow, and if her lover had only stayed looking out the window at the lights of the city where neither of them lived, the particular pain of being gladly forsaken would never have been driven through her heart—and what’s uncanny, what is really staggering, is the immutability of the shock of loss, and the way no matter who the lover was, however singular, the loss has something in common with previous losses, as if a single never-ending shock runs from beginning to end of her life and she gains access to it only at rare intervals. And when she imagines the grief she will feel at her father’s death she imagines it as another interval of that shock, which isn’t to say more of the same because for it to feel “the same” she would have to have adapted to it and that’s not possible, there is only living through it with- out understanding, there is only barely living through it. And already there is the next loss, lying in wait in the next several hours, though he—her father—would hate it if he knew she conceived of the loss of him as next, his psyche or character is such that he needs to believe he is the only, and she could be mistaken, maybe the rental agent or any person who has gone through the death of a father would warn her not to conjecture from what she’s previously lived through, and it comes to her, she can turn around, walk back and ask him How did you get through this? and the good agent would grope for an answer, needing some time, maybe, to adapt to these new, higher stakes between them, and she would be almost as comforted by his diligence in seeking the honest answer she needs as she would be by his tendering some useful description of how grief can be borne—only are use and usefulness irrelevant now, is there any human thing you can hold onto, going to meet grief, or is it saner to walk into it with a bare heart, the sliding glass doors parting and wind booming in, her hair writhing up around the tight knitted cap and slashing across, catching on her chapped lips, the animal in her tuning in to the emergency of zero-degree night. The world takes a giant step closer. All of this is really going to happen. For a stunned instant she can’t move, and the doors slide closed again. In the glass-box hush she tells herself You have to, and though she’s not aware of having moved, the doors slide open again.

2

California girl is what her brother sometimes called her, meaning lightweight and out of touch, no longer adapted to harsh Iowa- caliber reality, and she can’t turn out to be what her brother implied she is, a California abandoner, an escaper and eluder of responsibility, the only child not there the night her father lies dying, she can’t bear that, the parking lot’s raw cold ablaze in her chest; it sets her coughing. Her raincoat is gauze, and when she looks down, each button sports a crescent of snow. If only the knitter had knit mittens, too, her hands would be cozy striped paws, not fisted, freezing, in useless pockets. Inside her stupid boots her toes begin to sting. Behind, the low-slung terminal sends out its diligent, snow-defused radiance. If her father is still conscious he has observed that her brother is there and her sister is there and she is not. But they live here. All her sister had to do is drive across town. Her brother lives in a different but nearby small town and would have had to drive for twenty minutes, but what is twenty minutes earlier in the day when the storm had barely begun compared to these wheeling veils, the white sky’s swept and shuddering slow-motion dump? She’s no longer capable of driving in snow like this, if she ever was. Here comes shame. Let it come. Shame is better than getting herself killed. Sure you want to go out in this? Give in, turn back, walk through those sliding doors into warmth, into refuge, choose the chair on the end of a row of chairs, drop your bag, slouch down, cover your eyes, see if you can sleep, but no, to spend the coming hours sleeping in the impersonal haven of the terminal would be the most terrible mistake she’s ever made in regard to her father. No messages very probably means he is still alive, and if he is conscious and can recognize her, then he will feel forgiven, and it will mean something that she rushed to get to him. Her fucked-up family. As for anger at their withholding news of his cancer, delegating the call to her to the hospice worker, that’s going to have to wait. She can see the front door of her parents’ duplex as clearly as if she’s facing it, and the door is numinous in the way of doors about to open, and she’s destined to stand there facing it and waiting for it to open. It seems a minor matter, the distance between where she is now and the actual location in space of that door. Breath pluming, hers the only tracks in the Arctic, halogen lamps blurring and refocusing, car after car, hard-candy colors dimmed, each car a neutral platinum glaze frozen around a core of essential dark privacy. Wonderful, in a way cars rarely are—she never sees cars, really. She’s not a person cars matter to, but these do, now, set apart by the storm, they matter like musk oxen would matter, besieged in their fortress bodies, hunkered down to endure, her aliveness called to by theirs, the aliveness of cars which of course does not exist. Still, it is fantastic, the vast field of empty, gallant vehicles. Not too long ago, someone must have shoveled around them and done some scraping of windshields. When she reaches the SUV he chose for her, the big guy, she cuffs snow from its windshield and packs it. The snowball flies soundlessly through falling snow. Isn’t that beautiful? Why is it? —something about the opposition, the pure, moving focus of the sphere piercing tall flexing vertical wave after wave of cascading, blown-back snow. The SUV beeps its response, and she hears the thunk of its locks un- latching. Under the dome light whirl the bright particles gusting in behind her. The messenger bag, her only piece of luggage, plops into the backseat, snow fanning out, sparkling across the upholstery. Then comes the chill hospitable order of the new-car interior, the dashboard requiring several minutes’ concentration to master—the embarrassment, as if anyone is watching, of not right away grasping how to work stuff like this, or maybe it feels like one’s technological prowess is continually being assessed these days and no fumbling with a machine is ever truly forgivable, just as language is an inherently social endeavor and mistakes in figuring out language carry a special, outcast charge of humiliation—and gradually they acquire meaning, the icons below the dials, the knobs precipitating out from inscrutability, wipers, heater, the setting for defogging, the angles of the various mirrors, the rumbling of the big guy that will get her there; then, ludicrous or not, the self-salute to her bravery for being about to drive alone through the falling-snow world that holds her dying father. The massive calm vehicle she controls, which she can make do anything, backing and churning down the broad lane hemmed in by the blind backs of other SUVs, is lovable. She loves this car more than she loves anyone in her family. For this comparison, she apologizes aloud: “Fucked up.” A cloud of breath. Does her father know he has only hours left, is he terrified or does he, as her mother has long prayed for him to, believe at last in a life after this, can he still think, to what extent is he still himself, she wonders, understanding in a distracted way (distracted because she is beginning to comprehend the lag time snow interposes between her steering and the vehicle’s response) that she would give anything (now, navigating cautiously between parked monsters) to feel the love that figured in the word dad when the car-rental agent pronounced it: love that ought to be in her heart and isn’t. Did she love that way as a child? She must have. Everyone does. Was it not just some gift allotted to you, was it finally your job to love that way, should she have fought harder against her own hard-heartedness to still be able to love like that, how serious was her crime in not calling for two years?

The big SUV lumbers down the lane between parked vehicles as she tries to get the hang of steering in snow. She can’t help it: to think of him is to tinker with consuming narcissistic calculations whose aim is to prove either that he was at fault in their rift, or that she was. She wonders if he would ever under any circumstances have come running to her like this—no. That no seems to lift the SUV and swat it through a weightless circle with snow falling all the way around it, shades of gray accreting to suggest a presence looming toward her as in fact a glazed black panel buckles, crunching, and her SUV rebounds, skidding through another destined arc into a second surreal panel flashing and popping with reflections, the accident playing out in fractions of fractions of sliced panic until a fresh fraction conveys the news that her SUV is still riding through a languid circuit terminating in the light-mirroring mass of yet another parked vehicle, which flicks it away. The world comes to a stop.

3

She thinks I am not hurt. She looks out through the windshield. No alarms are going off. It is so silent, the widely spaced lights mooning through obliterating snow and the beauty-shock of albino dunes slung and saddled with blue shadow. Either the impacts were too glancing to trigger the air bag or this car has a defective air bag—in which case, it crosses her mind, she can sue the car-rental agency. Or could if she was hurt. She twists against the seat belt to study her wake. The ranks of cars look the same as before, none jolted out of line. But surely that first impact shattered a taillight, or worse. She ought to get out and check; she owes it to the rental agent not to drive away without inspecting the other vehicles, wiping snow from a bumper, a taillight, if she has to, and she’ll have to because it’s avalanching down, and walking back to the terminal to take responsibility. And then what? Questions. Lines to sign on. Paperwork. Taking how long? Her father will die while she’s doing paperwork. She tries to make out the damage she has done but none can be seen, really, not through the falling snow, not unless she gets out and walks back and looks, and once she’s done that she’ll have to slog back to the terminal, to his counter, and if he’s even still there she’s going to have to explain, and he may well say he needs to come back out here with her to assess the damage, and then— forms, questions, lines to sign on. She thinks fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. All the while the SUV is idling as smoothly as ever.

4

It continues, the emergency clarity of this falling-snow world, the way the snow knows about her dying father and roots for her to get there on time, arrows directing her to the on-ramp, signs that blaze up through falling snow, a conviction of rightness, the highway remembered not from childhood but from adult visits, summers when she had flown out to spend a week, a week turning out to be too long, the burdensomeness of her presence dawning on her father and her mother and on her, too, as well as hatred of herself for not being their irresistible guest, the daughter they would hate to see leave, but—in her mother’s telling she was born repellent, sporting a full head of straight black fur, her skin crisscrossed with furious scratches she had inflicted on herself in utero, if her mother’s account is to be believed, and if her young mother turned from her with instant loathing there was nothing the nurses could do, they could only bring the baby back again and say Here’s your baby, don’t you want to hold her, and her mother couldn’t stand to look and had no feeling for that baby except hatred that she was being thrust at her, and the nurses tried again and the young mother said no again, and at last the nurses slicked the black hair into a Kewpie doll spit curl and tied a bow on it and carried her in and the bow did the trick and her mother took her, and that was the story her mother told her and who is to blame in that story?, if the young mother didn’t feel what young mothers ought to feel whose fault is that?, and once when she was eleven she asked where was Daddy for those two or three days when the nurses could not get you to take me, and was told, well, fathers didn’t get involved in things like that then, not in those days, it was different, fathers were not expected to, and he was at work, he had to go back to work, and what she’d really wanted to ask was did it bother him that you refused to take me or even look at me, did that concern him, wanting him to have been on her side. If it’s any consolation, she can tell herself it could easily be true, he could have wanted to come into the nursery where the bassinets were lined up and lifted her baby self out and held her, if fathers did that then, but fathers didn’t, fathers then looked through glass.

Snow falling, her ticking-clock concentration pierced by appreciation of the fact that she’s in over her head, not skilled enough for a night like this, but what can she do except drive. A motionless mass up ahead casts a beam the wrong way, across her lane, what she thought was her lane. Then a fresh S-curve in the snow terminates in the long, dim, intricate underside of an overturned semi, the trucker stamping his feet while he justifies himself to his cell phone, lifting an arm as she slows, not to halt her but, it turns out, in thanks for her being kind enough to slow to see if she can help, or at least that’s how she construes it, his wave and the tilt of his head conveying Sure, keep driving. You might make it. Signaling, too: Good luck. Or so she interprets it, and how desperate she must be, how fucked and despairing, for that quick sideways tip of his head to mean so much—for her to derive from that stranger’s gesture the confidence she needs to continue driving, how ridiculous; yet it changes her mood to have had her striving recognized, her desperation saluted and encouraged, and who cares if it’s a stranger who does that for you? Angels we have heard on high plays on her mind’s radio. Sweetly singing o’er the—what? In the cinderblock, abstract-crucifix interior of the Methodist church of her child- hood she and her sister share a hymnal, singing o’er the—, o’er the—. She skips ahead to the line the two sisters can barely sing without giggling: Shepherds, why this jubilee? She repeats it until the rhyme arrives: Why your joyous strains prolong? What the glad- some tidings be—Skips further to Come, adore on bended knee, and she has it whole except for whatever it is the angels are singing o’er, the two sisters in the backseat of the car on the drive home teasing their stoic little brother, Shepherd, why this jubilee? until, crushed by their ruthless repetition of the baffling question, he shouts Because! After that, a lonely hour with no sign of another vehicle, no one else out in this.

Far down the headlights, snow flings and agitates in an opaque onslaught, but closer, maybe only a yard or so in front of the SUV, there’s some kind of boundary where snow detaches itself from the prevailing chaos, seeming almost, fascinatingly, to freeze in a vortex before zipping at her in extreme close focus, detailed down to individual flakes—a trick of vision, thrilling enough that she has to remind herself to look away from the borderline where the snow changes, back out to the farthest reach of the lights nudging into whiteness, the core of the halogens steadily dazzling, probing deeper but never gaining, not giving her much to go on—and it’s tedious staring steadily at those few yards of lit world, which might as well be the same yards over and over again, and there it is, plains. Sweetly singing o’er the plains. For some reason the acuity of her father’s glare two years ago comes back. Her own eyes in the rearview—a fraction of an instant’s assessment—are nowhere close to his in intensity. Nonetheless he hated her holding his gaze. Don’t you look at me like that was a thing he said fairly often. Not from boldness, but out of the need to understand him—the unrelenting need of her childhood—she wanted to keep looking right up until she transgressed, to look at him as long as she safely could, but the line was never where she thought it was. When she tilts her head, the bobble on top of the hat adds its mote of weight to the tilt. If she didn’t know this highway runs through flat fields, would she still sense, through the fast-falling snow, the vacancy stretching away on every side? How many die of exposure every winter in this county? Not only the homeless, not just drunks, but farmers who go astray between house and barn, whose tracks instantly fill in, according to her father at the dinner table of her childhood, and he was moved almost to tears by a farmer’s no longer being able to make out the lights of his house, and none of them knew what to do for him, or how to care more, as it seemed they should, for whoever had fallen asleep in snow.

From the far side of the snowfield that is the median, blades of light oar intermittently, the snowplow outlandish as a satellite eking out its transit.

There was a calculation to what the hospice worker had said, a methodically staged breaking of bad news. She had explained who she was and that she’d been staying in her parents’ house for two weeks; then the kind of cancer, the multiplicity of tumors and their aggressiveness, the gamut of treatments her father has been through; and then that nothing more could be done, medically, as her father was down to his last twenty-four hours and the palliative care was straightforward enough to be handled by the family; and then she had said, “He would want you to come.” Would has to mean he didn’t definitely say, but he was not yet, at that point, unable to speak, and he could have said Tell her to come, but someone gave the hospice worker her number and instructed her to call, and that someone, who could only be her mother, or possibly her sister, but who almost certainly is not her reticent, laconic brother, is likely to have a realistic grasp of her father’s wishes, and could have been moved to request that the hospice worker make the call by some pained, inarticulate gesture or even expression of her father’s that could be interpreted as the desire for the absent child to appear. Whoever this hospice worker is, she’s kind. Not detached, as might be expected of a person who often witnesses death, but speaking knowledgeably of the dying man’s temperament and wishes—how did she gather all that? When she hadn’t responded right away the hospice worker had said, “I know he wants you to come.” I know. How long has it taken for the hospice worker to become so proprietary? Not long. But it has always been like that with her father. He just somehow matters to people. He’s one of those individuals who seem, right away, significant, whose good opinion even strangers solicit, and however it happened he had sufficiently endeared himself to the hospice worker that she took a moment to regale his daughter with his quirks as a patient, to say Your father likes this, about some measure of extra attentive- ness taken in his care. What was it? A detail was confided to her and she’s forgotten it. But the hospice worker had figured out some preference of her father’s, and had gone to the trouble of making sure whatever it was was done the way he wanted, and she’s right about that, the hospice worker, nothing gratifies him more than prevailing over customary routines by mischievous insistence on a whim. Still, the possibility exists that the hospice worker was inadvertently misrepresenting her father’s wishes in regard to her. This could happen all too easily. Theirs is not a family whose wounds are obvious. As individuals and as a family they’re more oblique in their manner, harder to read, than most people are, and on top of that, of course, they dissemble. They want to look like a family that works, because any other kind of family—a family that really could shatter, in which sister and brother and daughter or even mother, even father, do not name re- liable or lifelong presences—is a source of shame, and if that’s your family, you keep it to yourself, and all of you, for once in genuine accord, keep it to yourselves.

Somebody’s gotten through, not long before. Somebody out in front, whose tracks are not snowed over.

The hospice worker had said, “You need to prepare for his being pretty far gone. It’s been a steep slide down for the last ten days. He’s lost a lot of weight.”

Visible through the roiling snow, a frayed blush—taillights.

What counts as preparation for his being far gone? Where do you start? Do you warn yourself that where you are used to strength there will be frailty?

Veiled rose coalesces into emergency red.

Or that he may not recognize you?

The taillights slew through a long arc that carries them well out into the median, and when it has slid sideways as far as it can go the car spins around, snow jetting from the drift it shears through, spurts flaring as it scrapes deeper into the drift and is locked in place, neither the skidding spin nor its concluding jolt hard enough to have injured anyone inside, she hopes, but probably they’re going to spend the night there, and she hopes they have a cell phone and with luck even a blanket and that they know about clearing the tailpipe every hour, the car already fading as she passes, its outline obscured, its headlights like holes torn through to some other, radiant world.

5

Last thing I need you to do, big guy, she coaxes the SUV, is sidle in close to the curb to be out of the way of the plow. Her brother’s and sister’s and sister’s husband’s snowed-over cars, and a fourth she doesn’t recognize, hospice worker’s or minister’s, occupy the driveway, her parents’ duplex, on the left-hand side of the shared facade of ocher brick, untransformed by the fact that her father lies dying within. Her cell tells her No messages, and she calls 911 and explains to the dispatcher where she saw the car go off the road into the median an hour ago, and the dispatcher says Thank you, ma’am, and she says Did anyone find them yet? and the dispatcher says I don’t know about that ma’am, there’ve been lots of calls tonight as you might imagine, and as she climbs down into the street, striped hat on and her bag slung over her shoulder, her stupid too-high heels wanting to skid out from under, she remembers her spin in the rental-car lot and brushes snow from the bumper, exposing several long scratches, and when she straightens up she tucks her freezing hands in her armpits and re- members her father scooping snow from the windshield of their station wagon, dropping it into the cupped hands of her five-year-old self, her father saying Pack it good and tight. Now throw.

 

 

From MENDOCINO FIRE. Used with permission of Harper. Copyright © 2015 by Elizabeth Tallent.


  • joshua hardy carroll

    Stellar piece. Superb rhythm throughout.



More Story
When Setting Trumps Character It begins with a setting. Sometimes it can end there, too—there are works of nonfiction whose purpose is to fully explore...