|I waited for Leslie in the truck, parked off the shoulder of the road to her mother's house. Leslie slid out the driver's door and pushed it closed softly behind her, leaving it accidentally ajar, but not making any move to close it. She paused for a minute and looked up the road, framed in the loose moonlight filtering through the windshield. She turned to me once more, "I'll be back Annie," as though I were the one who doubted it. Then she pulled her shadow from the shadow of the body of the truck and crossed over in front, and her footsteps crunched on the gravel as she started up the road home.|
watched her lean forward slightly to get better footing up the hill, her backpack
hefted high up on her body like a peddler's pack. I watched her disappear into
the shadows cast over the road by a stand of pine, and I watched her emerge again
in the clear.|
Leslie has told me stories of this country, where she grew up. I know that through the woods to the left about a half a mile there is a lake, with water tinged a mineral green and perpetually cold. There is a trail to the east, to the left, where the boys used to run their dirt bikes and shoot at birds with their slingshots, and there is a field where they used to hike at night by flashlight. I thought about getting out of the truck and looking around, and I fished the plumber's flashlight out from under the seat, but I decided that I wanted to be here when Leslie got back. I wanted not to have moved, to have remained faithful.
I tried to put the Leslie that I knew into this landscape but I couldn't see enough details in the darkness. I heard the sounds of the truck, the metal parts pinging as they cooled and contracted, and smelled the smell of warm pine drifting in through the open windows, mixing with the thick smell of old coffee and the faint perpetual truck smell -- gasoline and warm engine fluid. But beyond the truck and the patch of road the world was closed to me. I leaned out the window to get a look up ahead and didn't see Leslie at all. I had wanted to see her coming back.
I know that making the trip up here Leslie must have wanted alcohol. I could almost see it surrounding her, the way I imagine it surrounds her when she is upset or in trouble, hovering around her like a cloud as she went up the road, surrounded in craving like moonlight. I think It must creep up on her the way my addictions creep up on me, a high thin keening in empty places.
I wanted a cigarette. Fifteen years ago I would have sat in the truck and wanted to put two pints of ice cream into my body. Five years ago it would have been cigarettes. I shifted around on the naugahyde seat, drummed my fingers on the dash, tried to read the novel I've brought for the wait under the light of the flashlight, then put them aside. I thought about getting out and walking just around the truck, but with Leslie gone I felt guideless, alone in eerie country.
I wouldn't have chosen this time to meet Leslie's mother, Eileen. We were making a stop on the road on our vacation, like scheduling in a historic town or scenic spot. We were due back at the motel that night, where Rita and Rosemarie were waiting for us. By tomorrow afternoon we would be camped by the lake, maybe even with the canoes in the water. Leslie has allowed this a couple of hours, a couple of hours to cover four years of her life, to introduce me, and to introduce the new Leslie. The Leslie who is sober now. I had wanted to go with Leslie up to her mother's house but Leslie said no, she wanted to go alone first and talk to her, she wanted to be the advance scout and then bring me and the truck up later if it was safe. She wanted to do this by herself. She needed to. I sat vigilant in the truck now, defender in absentia. I settled in with resignation and closed my eyes, not asleep but patient, waiting for her to come back.
I heard Leslie before I saw her, heard the crunch of footfalls in gravel then saw the solid form with the backpack, coming around the curve. I thought for a moment that she would miss the truck entirely, dark blue against black shadows, but she cut a wide path around front, opened the door, put her day pack on the seat between us.
Leslie started the truck and flipped on the headlights, illuminating the rain of insects and night dust drifting by in front of us. She pulled onto the road and made a wide half circle, running the headlights in the direction of her mother's house and then away, so that we were going back down the road.
"How'd it go?" I moved the backpack onto the floor near the thermoses.
"We're not going up there?"
Leslie shrugged, then leaned her elbow out the window and rested her head on her fist. "Long night. Let's go back to the motel. I want a shower." In the glow from the dash her skin was sallow, a pale yellow tinged with the green from the speedometer. I listened for a catch in her voice, something to read her by but couldn't find it. Her jaw was a long hard line, her eyes darted back and forth between the road and the rear view mirror but never rested on me.
"How is Eileen?"
"Same as always." Leslie said.
When we got back to the motel Leslie dropped her backpack and went for the shower before I had time to really look at her. I turned the tv on low for company and listened to the shower run. She would be in there a long time, letting the water run down her back, washing her hair, feeling the soap glide over her skin. On other nights I have found her just standing still under the spray, leaning against one of the walls. I didn't disturb her this time. I paced, checked the drawers for stationary, figured out which switches controlled which lights, all with the nagging sound of the shower behind me, and the feeling that Leslie needed to be alone for a while. I told her I was going for a walk.
Crossing the lot I stopped and studied the canoes on the hitch behind Rita's van. They had the two good canoes, fiberglass and insulated, and the found canoe, the one they discovered last summer with the front torn off. They had done and admirable patch job with epoxy and resin, reattaching the nose piece. This was the test at sea then, this weekend.
I started to walk around the lot, looking at license plates and reading bumper stickers. I walked around the hotel a couple of times, and I crossed the highway and came back. It had clouded over on the drive back here, was threatening rain, and the stars and moon were obscured. I sat on one of the metal chairs under the awning and watched the cars pass on the highway, and wondered when Leslie would be ready to talk. Leslie and I had been together for three years, and it was still hard to tell sometimes, when she would talk if you asked her, and when she wouldn't. I got my novel out of the truck and sat back down and rocked slowly, the metal bending down reluctantly and then springing forward. It was one of those shell shaped chairs, painted glaring pistachio green. Somehow we seemed to be too far up for that kind of design, an architectural dislocation, a Florida bird blown north.
I heard the shower switch off in the room, listened for other sounds and couldn't find them. I laid the paperback open over the armrest of the chair and waited. I wanted Leslie to do whatever she needed to get comfortable and settled before I intruded on her. I watched the cars thread their way along the highway, seeming to have only each others tail lights to navigate by. Several doors down they had the t.v. on and the windows open. The sounds of some kind of police show wafted down the porch. Behind me the overhead lamp switched off and I thought about getting up when Rosemarie opened the inside door to her room and leaned around the wooden porch door. "You're back?"
"It didn't go well."
Rosemarie reached behind her and unlocked the hotel door, then ushered me into the parking lot. "Rita's asleep already. What happened?"
"Leslie won't say. We got back here and she got right into the shower."
Rosemarie crossed her arms and was leaning against the van, a small, pale, intense woman, with a long dark braid hanging down her back, self conscious in her nightgown. She wound her fingers through the door handle of the van, and her bracelets clinked together, narrow silver bands I had never seen her without. "Did you meet Eileen?"
"I didn't get out of the truck. Leslie was gone about forty five minutes. Then we came back."
Rosemarie nodded. The kohl she put around her eyes that morning had smudged during the day, and the black against her fair skin made her look pale, making her skin look almost fluid, like cream. Making her a cool softness. "I've heard some nasty things about Leslie's mother."
"Apparently they're all true." I leaned heavily against the van, because the more I hated Leslie's mother the more I knew that Leslie would be angry at me for doing so. In our room the lamp on the bedside table went off too. Rosemarie watched the picture window with me, looking for movement, sound. There wasn't any. "I'm going to go see what happened."
"Keep us posted."
I waited until Rosemarie had closed her door before I opened ours, rattling the keys so that Leslie would know I was coming. She had left the floor lamp near the tv on low for me, and was lying on the far side of the bed curled with her back to the door, curled away from me. She was playing with the handset on the phone.
I let my hand drift lightly over the covers until I found her shoulder, followed it down until I held her hand through the sheet and blanket. "You probably don't want to call her right now."
Leslie shrugged "Probably. Maybe not."
"What did she say?"
Leslie rolled over onto her back and put her arms above the covers. I took her hand again. "We talked about my brother, her tomato plants and the Pennant games. She made coffee and talked about how it's been since Dad died. I told her that Rachel had left me, when I went into detox." Leslie stopped for a minute and I thought she would curl back up again but she didn't. "Then I told her about you. I said `I've got a new lover named Anne.' And then Mom looked right over at me and said `Oh God Leslie, you've been drinking haven't you?' I thought she'd be happy for me. I said `No Mom, I haven't touched alcohol for four years.' She said, `Oh God Leslie, tell me you haven't started this again. Tell me you've been drinking.'"
I brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes. "Do you think she meant it?"
"Yes." Leslie reached over and took the receiver off the hook again and swung it by the cord so that it hit the bedside table a couple of times before she let it drop to the floor.
"If you think that she meant it, asking her again won't help."
"I keep thinking that if I call her again she'll say something different." Leslie ran her fingers along the phone cord. "Am I really that transparent?"
I pulled the receiver up by the cord and put it back. "You are a little wispy around the edges."
I told Leslie to wait a minute, and I brushed my teeth and got dressed for bed. When I came out of the bathroom she had curled up away from me again, facing the wall. I pulled the covers back and crawled in next to her. I took her wrist in my hands, and laid both of my thumbs on her pulse, and ran my fingers up the back of her arm, until my thumbs found the beat again in the fold of her elbow. It was during these times that I learned to draw Leslie, times when working on the surrender of the body was so much easier than the laying out of the soul. When Leslie and I were first together and were learning to navigate her silence, I would draw her body with my hands as her measure.
I measured out the four splayed hands that she is across the shoulders, the three and a half across the hips, the two hands that won't encircle a thigh. Her hands will hold two oranges, or cradle three eggs. I brushed my fingers lightly over her stomach, over the liver that we are both so conscious of, over her heart that hides in the lower center of her chest, between her breasts. On better nights we would try so hard to shine transparent for each other, to show each other the things floating in the currents in our blood. Tonight Leslie stayed opaque, curled away from me, and I didn't press her anymore about it.
It was a deja-vu morning -- we were going through country that Leslie believed she had been in before but couldn't quite remember. Leslie is a fiend for geography. Most of four years of her life drowned in the alcohol, and she is trying to find them. In the truck in the motel lot after breakfast, and after Rita and Rosemarie had pulled onto the highway, Leslie was sitting with the road atlas in her lap, memorizing country she already knew.
"We're in the place where you grew up." I told her. Leslie nodded, but didn't take her eyes off the map. She will survey the skyline sometimes, or walk down a particular road to see if anything looks familiar. Other times, to get a fix on something she will look at an area map, just study streets, or things that would be landmarks if seen on the ground. Leslie hasn't said so this time, but in the past Eileen has told her things about those four years she can't remember, stories that we can most of the time prove untrue, but not always. Stories that would make Leslie as she knows herself false. I leaned over her arm, and looked at the atlas in her lap. "Show me where we're going."
Leslie ran her fingers over the mountains as though they themselves were highways, destinations by themselves alone. We have traveled like this, looking for her memories I think, seen not a place but a kind of country, the Shenandoah Valley, the Eastern Maryland shore, the coast of Delaware. This time Leslie can point to a place we are going, a lake in the White Mountains, in country where some of her people used to live, but are gone now. When Leslie had drawn our route with her fingers, I took the atlas, riding shotgun. Once we were underway and it would be a long time until we had to change highways again, I laid the atlas open over the box at my feet, the box with all of the other maps in it.
We had the tents pitched before nightfall. Rosemarie and I started dinner, slicing vegetables and bread on the bottom of an overturned canoe, while Leslie and Rita went for a swim in the lake. I knelt behind the boat so that I could watch them. Rita went in first, hanging her towel over a tree limb. On her left shoulder, crossed by the black straps of her speedo, is her blue dragon tatoo. She got it the first year she was sober, a blue Chinese dragon with red eyes and yellow teeth, coiled on her back with its head near the top of her arm. When Leslie and I had known Rita and Rosemarie for several months, that was the story that Rita told us, Rita who was usually so silent told us how she had earned her dragon. And that was the day that Leslie started to trust her.
Leslie waded in next, then swam right out into the lake, out toward the island in the middle. In better times there is joy in watching Leslie swim, the water gives her a grace she can't capture on land. Buoyed up she is long arms and powerful thighs, a form moving forward that is agile, made of timing and arms and legs, and breathing. When she is happy she swims a dozen laps or so and then floats around on her back, or explores the shallows looking for interesting rocks or water life.
That day she did only laps, dragging her body along, a collision of water and flesh. She was trying to exhaust herself, swim until she ached. She was in a mood where if she pulled herself out into the lake too far to come back she might not notice, or care. Rosemarie stopped peeling carrots, and was watching her too. She looked over at me and raised her eyebrows, a question and concern both.
After supper Rosemarie and I sat up on a hill a little way away from the campsite and Rosemarie took two bottles of ice tea out of a stash she had in the van. We watched Leslie and Rita clean up and start a campfire.
"So what happened?" Rosemarie opened the top on her tea.
"Eileen decided that if Leslie was with me she was probably drinking. She wanted Leslie to be drunk to explain it. She thought that if Leslie gave up drinking she would give up women too."
"Oh." she nodded. "It works that way though. People make connections based on what they want to see, on their own versions of the patterns of the universe." Rosemarie took another long draw on her bottle, twirled it around in her fingers for a minute. "You know I was with Rita when she was drying out, right?"
I shook my head no.
"It was awful. Sweats, shaking, so dizzy she couldn't move. A day and a half like that, lying on the bed thinking she was going to die without something to drink. Crying it hurt so bad." Rosemarie shook her head, "I used to talk to her a lot those days about how she felt, when she had to sit down and think about what she wanted in life, and how to clean up what she had done. I had expected her to say that she was depressed, that she was sad. She said to me, `No Rosemarie. Too light. Too hollow.' I didn't know what to think about that for a long time, and then I realized that without alcohol to slow her down, to hold her to earth, she was feeding on herself, floating through her life and not knowing what to do about it. 'Grief is so light,' she said. 'Not heavy, not hard. So easy to float off and be gone. Alcohol was a pin,' she said, 'And I've unfastened it.'"
Rosemarie twirled the liquid in her bottle around for a minute. "I watched her work hard for this." She pointed down the hill at Rita and Leslie, heating water for dishes. "And if you didn't know Rita you wouldn't know how amazing this is." Rosemarie leaned her arms on her bent knees, watching her lover do wonderful ordinary things.
"Leslie was reading a book, somewhere, when she was researching our travels, probably, that said that the force of gravity is actually stronger in the mountains. The rock is thicker here, and gravity pulls harder on it. I had always pictured gravity as coming down from the sky somehow, but is doesn't, it comes up from the bottom, through the soles of our feet. We are actually heavier here, tied harder to the earth." I collected both of our tea bottles to dispose them. "She's never been clear on whether she'd ever been to the mountains during those four years or not. Eileen says yes sometimes and no others. It's an odd kind of gravity in a place that is all she knows about those times usually. Dim memories, like a play she can only hear, or a dumb show. A lot of her life is reconstruction, I think. More than she tells me."
"You know, Eileen's a damn cold bitch." Rosemarie said.
"I think Leslie's finally figured it out this time."
Rosemarie shrugged "With family sometimes you don't ever."
When we got back down to the fire, Rita had brought out and was inspecting the patched canoe.
"Will it hold?" Rosemarie asked.
"Maybe. Probably. Best I can see it must have been run over by a truck. Something heavy."
"Where did you find it?" I asked.
"Pushed into some tall grass along the Crane River. We figured we'd test our patching skills on it."
Leslie looked at the boat for a couple of minutes, then off out to the lake, or into the fire. We had been to the Crane River the summer before, fact finding. We had told them how beautiful it was. A deep quiet settled over us, with Leslie in it's center, brooding. There was nothing to do but sit with her, so we waited. Leslie didn't say anything for a minute. "I think I hate her." she mumbled finally."But I don't want to."
"Sometimes you don't have a choice." Rita crossed her arms over her chest. "Sometimes it's a matter of self preservation."
Leslie sat very still, never looking away from the fire. I could see it again, her halo, the haze that she carries floating around her, covering her shoulders, the upper part of her chest. "Tell us, Leslie." I said. She shook her head no, played with a strand of grass at her feet.
Rosemarie got up and paced just out of the range of the firelight. She went over to the van and came back with one of the food bags, took out a peach and passed the bag around. She took a couple of bites and held it away from herself, her arm resting on her bent right knee. We ate in silence for a few minutes, until Rosemarie said finally, "You know we could bury your mother, Leslie."
We all looked over at Rosemarie, sitting opposite Rita around the fire, talking to everyone but watching Rita. "Dig a hole and contain her, so you don't have to carry this around. We could bury her. In effigy."
Rita shook her head no. She looked away from Rosemarie, over at Leslie. "We buried a box of letters once, but that was an object, a small significant object."
"Still it might work." Rosemarie held the uneaten part of the peach in her palm, and played with it with her fingers. "Sometimes it's the only way to get rid of something. Throw it away. What do you think, Leslie?"
"I don't know."
"Maybe think about it then." Rosemarie took a couple more bites from her peach. I leaned over and put my arm around Leslie's shoulders and she leaned on me for a minute, then pulled away. Rosemarie started talking about the new chair her department had at school, and the conversation drifted around for a while, as it got later.
I don't know who noticed first, maybe me because Rosemarie had put us in mind of it, but the more I contemplated the idea of helping Leslie the more they drew my attention. The overturned canoes outside of the circle of firelight began to look like coffins. Three of them, wide dark shapes just outside of comfortable vision, showing brighter in the occasional spark from the fire. I think Rita followed my line of vision over there first, then Rosemarie and finally Leslie. I also think that we all had the same thought, although no one said anything.
"You know, I do think that would contain her body." Leslie and I were sitting on shore, watching Rita and Rosemarie maneuver in the patched canoe in the shallows, seeing if it would hold.
"You think so?"
"With enough dirt thrown over it."
"And she would stay there?"
"Yes." Leslie settled her back against the tree more comfortably and then crossed her arms over her chest. "Mom and a lot of other things. I asked Rosemarie this morning. She said she was going to ask me if I hadn't brought it up. She said that if I wanted an object, an anchor for this, we could bury the patch canoe. I don't know Annie, there are smaller things I could try.
"Last night though this looked right?"
"Last night this did."
I waited for Leslie to say something else, but she didn't. Leslie's wordlessness is what bothers me most, what frightens me sometimes. I think that there is a process that isn't working for her, when there are no words that flow from her, when I would teach her what to say if I knew what it was. I can't. I don't. Sometimes I ask questions, try to find the right one. Sometimes I do. "What do you think you'll be leaving here?"
Leslie smiled at me, but she didn't answer right away. "Mother and Mnemosyne." she said finally.
I pulled my knees up to my body, stirring the pine needles on the ground. During our camping trips I usually got my clothes covered in pine pitch, and it smelled so good that I didn't care. I was watching Leslie closely again. "Do you think you're going to be O.K.?"
Leslie shrugged, "What is tho other choice?" She picked up a handful of pine needles. "Have I apologized for fucking up your vacation yet?"
"For the last one yes. Not for this one yet. It's OK, you've got a tab." I leaned back against the tree again and put my hands behind my head. "One more lousy vacation though and you owe me a world cruise."
"I promise you I'll make this all up to you, Annie."
I pushed a piece of Leslie's hair out of her eyes. "Okay."
We started digging after dark, setting up the propane lamps one at each end of the pit we were going to dig, and lining the side boundaries with rocks. Rita took up a shovel and began to dig, the dragon on her back leaping furiously as her shovel bit in and pulled out, cutting through the grass roots that held the top layer of soil in place. Leslie took out a shovel and started opposite her, and Rosemarie and I began at the other end. We didn't speak as we worked, falling into a kind of rhythm that required no words. We jabbed our shovels under the edges of the grass trench to cut at the roots, cut the grass into strips and rolled it away. There was a neat black rectangle at our feet, full of silty lake dirt and small, rounded stones. When we put our shovels in it was softer than we had thought it would be, and gave up a rich, wet smell, and we found we had to be careful not to collapse the sides by standing too close to the edge. Around us were only the sounds of crickets and the hiss of the lanterns and the scrape of metal shovels against rock. We all stood in the pit when it got too hard to dig from the outside. Finally Rita got out the tape measure and checked the dimensions.
We intended for the pit to be about four feet deep and seven feet long and three feet wide -- too long and narrow and shallow for a real grave. But when we looked down into it illuminated by the white glow of the propane lamps the dimensions were just formalities. It was a real grave looking back at us. I got a cold place in the middle of my back that spread down my spine, that went up into my arms and chest, that settled in the joints of my jaw and made my teeth clench. In that moment, I started to believe that we were burying a real body.
Rita and Rosemarie retreated, and left Leslie and I alone. Leslie sat down on the opposite side of the pit from me and stared down, picked one of the stones off of the pile and transferred it from hand to hand. It occurred to me then that when we put Leslie's mother in that pit we would be burying part of Leslie too, and that I didn't know which part that would be, and what we would leave behind for it. I didn't know suddenly if I wanted Leslie to go through with this, but I knew too that I wouldn't say anything, but watch and wonder what she would do.
I stood there for a long time, my shadow running up, parallel to Leslie's body, falling partially into the pit. Leslie looked up at me finally and I could see that she had started crying. Rosemarie and Rita were behind me, and I didn't think that I could leave her but I did, I stepped back, so that Leslie was alone by the pit, and we were all by the pine trees, on the edge of the light, impossibly large in the shadows from the propane lanterns, cast up on the hills like figures in ancient stories. And we waited while she did this alone.
Moths and insects that had seemed only annoying when we were digging were hitting the lanterns hard, making sharp soft pinging noises, trying to commit self immolation on either side of the grave. Lit from below Leslie was in sharp relief, her body and her hands white, her eyes shadowed so I could not see them, deep black. The more I tried to tune out the hissing from the propane lamps the louder they seemed. The trees around us began to rustle together like the sound of rain. Leslie was still for several minutes, her eyes dark and closed to me, contemplating the thing that lay open on the ground below her. Finally she turned around and slowly uncovered the patch canoe.
She folded the tarp and laid it aside and ran her hands along the near side of the canoe as though she could memorize it with her fingers. She ran her hands under the seats and over the bottom seams, she brushed her fingers over the ends, as though convincing herself that it was empty, that it could hold what she wished it too. Then she began dragging it over the shadowed grass, toward the open pit. When she got it to the edge she stopped. From around her neck she took a necklace, a bear fetish she had gotten on our last trip to Texas, carved in dark green granite. She held it in her hand a moment and then let it fall into the boat. Then she didn't move. I waited for there to be something else, one of the maps, one of her wallet photographs of her mother, her family, one from one of our trips. But there was nothing.
I shifted from foot to foot, not knowing how Rosemarie could have stood watching Rita suffer through withdrawal the way she did, and I looked over at them, where Rita stood with her arms crossed over her chest and Rosemarie next to her, with a hand on Rita's shoulder but not entirely touching her. Part of Rita's grasp included the bracelets, and they were separated by the tiniest bands of silver.
Leslie pulled at the boat again and I realized that it was too big for her to settle in the grave by herself, too awkward for her to lay it in the bottom without tipping up one end, or rolling it on its side. I looked at Rita and Rosemarie for advice but they weren't looking at me. They were watching Leslie only. She struggled for a moment and then I came forward to help her, knelt in the grass the way she did, picked up the balance of the canoe that she couldn't lift and we lowered it in, settling it into the loose dirt at the bottom.
Leslie remained kneeling for a couple of minutes, then picked up a shovel and began pitching dirt into the grave. I took the other shovel and Rosemarie and Rita helped, and we had it filled in a couple of minutes. We put the sod we had cut back in place and then put the two canoes and the tarp over the scar. We stood around for a minute more, and then Rosemarie and Rita took one of the lanterns and went up the hill, toward the van.
Leslie and I took the other, and Leslie wanted to go sit by the water. I left her and the lantern on the dock and rummaged around in the truck, finding more of Rosemarie's stash of tea and taking a bottle for each of us. As I turned toward the water again, I saw Leslie leaning out over the lake, in the bright circle of light from the lantern. She was playing in the water, splashing from the light patch into the dark, taking her shoes off and kicking. Then she let the lake water run through her hands and it fell through the air making silver sparks, and when she splashed it against her face it ran off of her body in silver rivers. She shook out her hair the way a person shakes off sleep, and I stood still just watching her, remembering again how beautiful she is.
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