I pulled up to the cabin in my Jeep and cut off the engine, heaving a sigh of relief and just sitting a moment, taking in the familiar view of the log walls and blue lake and sky. Finally I got out and set to work hiding my tracks. I didn’t need any nosy parkers following my trail to the lake and interrupting my peaceful grief here.
I pulled a few things out of the boathouse before parking the Jeep inside and covering its shiny redness with a moldy blue tarp I’d found in a corner. Then I spent the next couple hours scuffing out my tire tracks for at least three hundred yards from the cabin. By the time I was done, I was covered in loose forest dirt and pine needles up to mid-thigh, and I’d wiped my hands and arms across my face so many times my skin felt tight with grime and cracked when I grimaced.
I wanted nothing more than to collapse into bed and sleep for a couple days, but once I got inside the cabin, leaving my crusty boots at the door outside and my crusty jeans at the door inside, the memories came flooding back to me, and I was wide awake and somehow refreshed.
The last painting my family owned done by my grandfather still hung on the wall in the living area, and his ashes still rested in an urn on the rough-hewn mantel above the fireplace. Even though he’d been gone since I was a child, and I’d spent more years here without him than with him, this was still his place, and stepping inside was like stepping into his warm embrace one last time.
The couch was covered in a sheet of clear plastic, but I could see the same old heavy blue-jean quilt lying over the back, waiting to warm me when it got cold again. Next to it, my dad’s worn armchair, wooden arms dark and shiny with decades of body oils. The rug my mom found in a thrift store and declared “just perfect” for our vacation getaway, our home away from home.
It was all perfect, and exactly how I remembered it. I walked further in, stripping my shirt over my head, careful to keep the dust and twigs inside the cloth, and froze when I reached the kitchen.
There was the yellowing Amana fridge, and held onto its face with alphabet magnets, a crayoned landscape made by yours truly at nine years old. The years had given me fresh eyes although the picture felt deeply familiar, and I saw my own potential as a stranger might have. Pride swelled briefly in my chest before I remembered that part of my life was put forever behind me with the loss of my wife.
I crumpled into a chair at the dining room table and cried for what felt like forever. I came here because she never had, because this was the one place that I thought I could live for a while without seeing her face every time I blinked, but I was wrong. I couldn’t breathe without seeing her face. She was my whole world, and now she was gone.
I cried myself to sleep at that table, and when I woke up I was in so much pain I could hardly stand. My joints creaked audibly, and my shoulders protested my efforts to put my arms down at my sides from where they had pillowed my head throughout the night. My back screamed in agony at my hours of poor, stiff posture.
I refused to turn the generator on, so I knew the water would be ice cold, but I stepped into the shower still in my bra and panties. I turned the knob, and the water was so cold I tried to scream and couldn’t. I knew hot would have been better for my sore muscles, but the massage of the pounding drops was better than nothing, and my skin grew numb after a few moments.
I got out when my teeth started to chatter, and, unable to face the bedroom alone, unable to face any bedroom alone just yet, I pulled the plastic from the couch and wrapped myself in the blue-jean quilt before collapsing onto the worn cushions. I shivered for a long time before dropping off into a slightly more restful sleep than I’d gotten at the table.
When I woke I was warmer, even though my short hair and the underwear I’d slept and showered in was still damp. I realized that I hadn’t brought my bag in from the Jeep, and so had no fresh clothing to put on. I slipped on a pair of the clogs that we’d always kept by the front door for running out to fetch more firewood and went to the boathouse in my undies. My family owned this land for miles, so I knew I didn’t have any neighbors across the lake to ogle my nakedness.
I flipped the tarp out of the way and pulled my duffel from the backseat. The tears threatened again, and I quickly covered her Jeep back up. God, I missed her so much. The pain in my chest felt like nothing could ever make it go away, like it was something I would live with for the rest of my lonely life. I smoothed the tarp over the back windshield and headed for the cabin, my right hand fisted against my chest to keep the pain from bursting out of my body.
I dropped my bag on the table just inside the door and considered how lucky I was that the bathroom was the first door down the hall, that I wouldn’t even have to pass my or my parents’ bedrooms just yet. I kicked the clogs off, nudging them back into their rightful place to the other side of the door, grabbed my bag, and returned to the couch.
I let my wet underthings slap the carpet beneath my feet as I stripped down, and I dressed myself in the first full set of clothes I pulled from my bag. Luckily enough, it was a tshirt and a pair of sweatpants. My hand rested on a pair of wool socks, but I decided against them, shoving them back, deep into my duffel. I slid the bag to the floor and curled up on the couch again, beneath the heavy comforting weight of the quilt. My mother would never know that I left wet clothes on her precious thrifted rug.
I knew it wasn’t good for me to sleep so much, but right then, I didn’t have anything but sleep to help my state of mind. I succumbed again, a willing victim of sleep.
This time I didn’t dream of her.
Celia rocked back and forth in the recliner, her toe tapping the floor with each heave forward, a deep amorphous feeling of absentness within her chest.
She stared blankly into space, her mind flitting and floating from topic to topic, the grasshopper that jumped on her when she was seven years old, the family trip to the mountains to stay at a ski lodge, her brother’s negligence when it came to calling and keeping her from worrying. She hadn’t heard from him in well over two months, and it was nearing the longest stretch of time in their lives to go without contact.
Her cell phone let out a long, jarring warning tone: a tornado touched down in her area and she needed to seek safety as soon as possible. She switched her volume off, and continued rocking, tapping the floor and tapping the floor.
The roar of the storm passed her by, and she still didn’t hear from her brother.
Teresa sang softly to herself as she dumped and stirred, dumped and stirred. Today was going to be the greatest day of her life: the day she won The Great Chili Cookoff. This was her year. She could practically taste it–or was that some chili powder that she’d inhaled trickling down the back of her throat? Never mind.
It was nearly four o’clock in the morning. So far, Teresa had managed to keep quiet enough in the kitchen that she remained undisturbed.
And then she dropped the lid to her pressure cooker.
It hit the floor with a solid bang, and then rolled around on its edge a few times, adding to the din. She cringed, and turned to look down the hall. Sure enough, she saw a thin sliver of light pop on beneath the master bedroom door. About three seconds after that, the baby let out a wail. Teresa sighed.
She scooped up the lid and set it gently on the dining room table on her way to the baby’s room. Halfway there, she remembered that she’d left the stove on, and crisp black bits would not win her the title at The Great Chili Cookoff. The baby let out a more piercing wail, and Teresa cringed anew at the sound of the master bedroom door creaking open. Don was not going to be happy.
She tried to fix it, lightheartedly smiling and waving him back into the bedroom. “I got him, honey, sorry for waking you up. Go finish sleeping. Love you!”
Don gave her the stinkeye and kept coming. “I’ll handle the baby, Terry, you go finish that damn chili that you’ve been obsessing over for the past six years. Jesus Christ, if I never eat another bowl of chili, I could die a happy man.” He continued mumbling to himself about chili this and chili that as he opened the door to the baby’s room and then closed it behind him.
Teresa’s face fell, but she returned to the kitchen and turned the stove back on. “This is my year, I just know it. That’ll show you, Don. That’ll show everyone!”
A quick stir moved the black burnt bits from the bottom of the pan to the top, and Teresa sank to the floor in tears.
This year wasn’t going to be her year, after all.
Don came out of the baby’s room and knelt next to his wife, tenderly wrapping his arms around her. “Don’t worry, hon, there’s always next year. You’ll win it yet. I know you will.”
In his room, the baby began his wail anew.
I hope each and every one of you had as lovely a day as I did, whether with friends or family or peacefully home alone.
Phil was an emotional wreck.
He peered out the window for a brief instant before twitching the blinds back into place. No one was going to show. He knew it in his heart. He put out a hand to catch himself on the arm of his favorite easy chair, but missed, and collapsed all the way to the floor. He curled up, hugged his knees to his chest, and began bawling his eyes out.
A knock on the door startled him, and he rose quickly, dashing the tears from his face with the heel of his right hand. When he opened the door, His lips moved, but no sound escaped to welcome his sister and her new husband to his home.
“Hey Phil!” cried his sister Lynette. she took a step into his domain and dropped her purse on the table next to the door before squeezing his ribs ever so tightly. “This is Robert, I’m sure you remember that.” She gestured Robert to come inside as she sidled Phil gently out of the way and softly closed the door.
Robert stuck out a hand. “Nice to finally meet you, buddy.” He smiled broadly, a smile that began to wilt when Phil failed to grasp his hand or even speak at an audible volume.
“Don’t worry, hon,” Lynette patted her husband on his upper arm. “Phil gets a little freaked out when he has company. Why don’t we all go sit down in the living room?” She led the two men into the adjacent room and settled Phil on his easy chair before ushering Robert to one end of the couch. She took the other end.
Phil teased a stray bit of string from the upholstery with his forefinger and thumb, refusing to look up at the invaders on his couch. He suddenly regretted ever buying that couch. If he hadn’t gotten a couch, there would be nowhere for them to sit, and then perhaps they wouldn’t have come at all. They wouldn’t be invading his sanctuary.
When he finally looked up, the couch was gone, and the floor was dusty in the spot where it never was. A single tear followed in the tracks already left on Phil’s face as he realized that he’d done it again.
He’d forgotten that he was an only child.
My stepmother’s hobby is genealogy. My father hates it; the last time I talked to him, he complained of their last road trip, of the visits to small town city halls and libraries where she pored for hours over moldy records and microfilm while he waited in the car with the dogs. When I was a kid we would stop at places while traveling between their house and my mother’s house so that she could research someone or other.
I respect her dedication to the pursuit. It’s not always easy, and it’s not always clean. I never knew that it was because she’s Mormon that she worked so hard at it. I didn’t know that was just another thing that she did, like keeping a year’s worth of food on hand. I mean, lots of people study their genealogy.
I think it’s interesting in itself, although not enough to go out and research my own family as actively as she does; that’s mostly because I’d have to leave the country to find out about my father’s side.
I haven’t thought about it in a long time, about researching for myself, that is. It seems more interesting now that I’m older than it used to. I think I’ll see what I can find online.
How much do you know about your family? Have you ever studied genealogy? Do you have any site recommendations?