Authors: David Vann
No. The pain is behind my eyes, especially my right eye.
I don’t know what that is, Rhoda said.
Your father has left me alone all day.
Checked on me once and then disappeared.
But he knows you’re sick.
Did he try to help? Did he ask if you needed anything?
Irene thought for a moment. I guess he did. He asked if he could take me to a doctor, and asked if I wanted lunch.
So he tried, Mom.
That was about six hours ago. More than six hours.
Well I’m here now, and Frank Bishop is coming out. He’ll be here any minute. I’ve brought some painkillers, too, in case he doesn’t have anything with him.
I’ll take them now, Irene said.
Sorry, Mom. We have to wait.
Irene sighed. Sickness and health, she said. In sickness and health. And if anything ever happens to me, your father goes running.
He loves you, Mom. You’re not feeling well, so you’re not being fair to him.
It’s who he is. He can’t take care of anyone except himself.
Why don’t you lie down again, Mom?
So they walked back to the bedroom, and Rhoda tucked Irene in, then a car pulled up.
Must be Bishop, Rhoda said.
Irene waited in bed absorbed in pain, wanting it just to go away.
Frank Bishop came in with a cheery hello. Howdy, Irene. What did you do now?
You’re only thirty years old, Frank. Don’t condescend to me.
Okay, he said, with a roll of his eyes at Rhoda.
Don’t do that, Irene said.
So he stopped talking. Rummaged around in his bag, sitting in a chair Rhoda had brought to the edge of the bed, and pulled out a thermometer, stuck it in Irene’s mouth. Then he took her pulse.
All three of them waited a minute in silence for the thermometer, and finally he pulled it out. No fever, he said.
Yep, Rhoda said. She doesn’t feel hot.
So what are your symptoms, Irene? he asked.
Terrible pain behind my right eye, in a spiral. My whole head and neck hurt, but the pain behind my eye is unbelievable. Aspirin and Advil don’t do anything to it. I need something stronger. And my throat is raw, my nose completely stuffed. I feel like hell.
Okay, he said. Sounds like a sinus infection.
Yeah, Rhoda said.
I need to bring you in for X rays. I need to see how bad it is.
Can you give me painkillers now?
Tomorrow, he said.
That doesn’t help me much.
Sorry, Irene, that’s all I can do. I have to know what I’m treating. He stood up, gave her a pat on the shoulder, and left.
Rhoda walked him out to his car, a Lexus, muddy all along the bottom. Sorry, she told him. She’s just not feeling well.
Yeah, he said. Bring her in tomorrow morning. Then he got in his car and drove away. Rhoda had gone to high school with him, everything since grade school. And now he was rich and got to play God, while she sewed up dogs and sampled poop.
When Rhoda returned bedside, her mom wanted the painkillers.
Okay, Mom, she said. I have Vicodin. Only one every four hours, though. No more than that or you could have problems. And it may make you feel nauseated. It can have other side effects, too.
Just end this, Irene said. I don’t care if all my skin falls off and I grow a third tit. I just want to sleep and not feel anything.
At the turnoff to the Lower Salmon River Campground, Monique was standing by one of the blue concrete igloos that used to be gift shops, looking like a hitchhiker, or maybe a biker chick. Guilt and fear already riding Jim hard. He considered just driving on by, but she was watching him.
Nice rig, she said as she hopped up onto the seat. Room for twelve.
Yeah, it’s pretty spacious, Jim said. It was just a Chevy Suburban, and he wasn’t sure whether she was making fun of him. How come you’re staying all the way down here? It’s over twenty minutes to Soldotna.
Carl likes to move around and see different places. He has this idea that if he sees everything, it will amount to something.
He’s my boyfriend. We came up here together.
Oh, Jim said, as if the world had just collapsed.
It doesn’t matter, Monique said. It’s not as if I’m married.
No. No, Jim said. That’s true. It’s not as if you’re married. Hey, it’s not as if I’m married, either.
Are you seeing someone?
No, not really.
Hmm, said Monique, and Jim wondered whether she already knew about Rhoda. Then he remembered he had met Monique through Rhoda’s brother, Mark. Monique had certainly heard about Rhoda, then, and may even have met her. They could become good friends soon, for all he knew.
Fuck, Jim said aloud.
Oh, sorry. I just forgot something important today.
I hate that.
Yeah. Jim wondered how he’d get through the next twenty minutes. Somehow he had imagined they’d just flirt a little and then fall into each other’s arms when they got to his place.
So where are you from? he asked.
D.C., Monique said. Where it is not beautiful and there are no mountains.
What do your parents do there? He was hoping to get some idea of her age.
My mother’s a bigwig with the AID.
Ah, Jim said. He couldn’t just admit he didn’t know what the AID was. Probably an organization of some sort, or a government thing. He didn’t keep up with the papers all that well.
What kind of things does she do with them? he asked.
Mostly health programs, Monique said. She was trained as a medical anthropologist. She’s always flying off to places she won’t take me, and coming back with shoes or something. We do travel together sometimes.
And your father?
Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.
It’s all right, really. It’s not a big deal. We’re happier without him.
Huh, Jim said.
So what about you, darling? And she asked it in some famous actress’s voice, someone he should know. Tell me about yourself.
My father was a dentist also.
A grand old tradition. And your mother?
She didn’t work.
You mean she did child care, home engineering, and billing?
How old are you? Jim asked.
Old enough to be your grandma.
Jim laughed. That’s good, he said.
Yeah, she said.
Carl, meanwhile, was back at the campsite huddled in his tent against the rain, writing postcards. Saying hi to his friends in D.C., telling them how he was and how Monique was, too, since Monique didn’t write postcards. Monique also didn’t sleep in tents, apparently. She had found higher ground somewhere. The note said only, I’ll see you tomorrow. This pissed him off. He would have run out into the rain and torn his clothes and raged like Lear, but no one was around to watch. Monique couldn’t have heard or cared. In the end, he would only have been wet, with torn clothing. The whole thing sucked.
It was the kind of thing that had been happening since the first day they arrived in Soldotna. Carl and Monique heard that first day about treble-hook snagging at the gravel spit in Homer and rushed down in a rental car. This was when Carl still had some money.
Monique thought Homer was beautiful. While Carl got his gear together, she walked around the harbor. The mountains on the far side of the bay rose straight out of the water in jagged rows and still held snow at their summits. Flocks of pelicans skimmed along the black-sanded beach, the water was jeweled in late evening sun, and looking out into the bay, shielding her eyes, Monique saw the spray of a humpbacked whale rise up golden and glittering then sweep along the surface in the wind. This is a place I could live, she thought. Then she walked on the docks, looking at the boats, and met a fisherman who had dark hair and blue eyes and spoke to her of king crab and halibut and the softness of the sea at night.
Carl knew all this because Monique had told him afterward, in detail. She was like that. It didn’t occur to her that she might be stepping on something.
Unaware of the dark handsome man with blue eyes and this shit about the softness of the sea, Carl had tromped down to the edge of a gravel pit partially filled with unclear water. A hundred feet across and three times as long, it looked like a stagnant pond. He could see small, iridescent rings on the water’s surface from gasoline. But the king salmon came here anyway, apparently, with the high tide.
The tide was dramatic along the Cook Inlet, a current like a river, and when it came in at about eight o’clock, it did come in fast. Carl was impressed. The salmon poured in, and a hundred fishermen, Carl among them, ripped huge, weighted, baitless treble hooks through the water from all directions trying to snag the salmon as they darted past. A hook often came free of the water and shot through a row of fishermen to bury itself in the gravel bank behind. It was stupid and dangerous. Getting snagged and ripped wasn’t all that uncommon, Carl heard with a chuckle from one of the regulars. There were ten-year-old kids out there whipping their lines around not looking behind them and old men tottering on alcohol and medications, their vests and hats already a jumble of hooks. It was ridiculous and demeaning. The salmon caught were tattered and frayed, ripped up from all the previous snags that had pulled free.
Carl wrote on a postcard to Monique’s mother, It’s gorgeous here. Monique and I are really enjoying Alaska, the scenery and the people, the fishing. We met a fisherman who told us about king crab and halibut, and this was after we saw pelicans, whole flocks of them. Carl ripped up the postcard. Monique’s mother didn’t think he was quick enough. Slow Carl, she called him behind his back. Monique had told him this. Carl curled up into the drier part of his sleeping bag and tried to sleep.
Monique and Jim were having their own problems with sleeping arrangements. They had just finished a lovely salmon dinner, with wild rice and white wine and a somewhat battered-looking but, in Jim’s opinion, delicious Baked Alaska he had read up on and prepared himself. Yo-Yo Ma was playing on the stereo, and Jim was imagining great sex. Then Monique asked where she would be sleeping.
What? Jim asked.
I’m a little worn out, she said. Stayed up too late last night, so I was thinking I might turn in early after such a wonderful dinner. It really was superb. You’re quite a chef. And she raised her glass to toast him.
Uh, he said. Hmm. I was kind of thinking I’d be taking you back at some point tonight. Jim was panicking. Rhoda sometimes stayed over with her parents when she had dinner there, but not always, not even frequently.
You can’t be thinking of taking me back to that campsite in the middle of the night.
No, no, of course not. I don’t know what I was thinking.
Is it Rhoda? Is she coming here tonight?
You’re not the only one who lives here, are you?
And Rhoda’s planning on marrying you, isn’t she?
Jim’s erection had died. He closed his eyes and massaged his temples.
Jim, Monique said. This is poor planning, don’t you think?
Jim moaned a little and tried to think without thinking.
Look, Monique said. A nice hotel would be fine. I don’t want to get you in trouble with Rhoda.
Really? Jim asked, perking up. You’re the best.
I don’t mind.
So Jim took her to the King Salmon Hotel, where he hoped he wouldn’t know whomever was on duty. But after they had waited at the desk and rung the bell, one of his patients came out and smiled and said, Hello, Dr. Fenn.
Jim had to look quick at her name tag.
Hi, Sarah, he said.
How can I help you? She smiled at Monique, too.
This is my niece, Monique, Jim said. She’s up visiting for a while, but we’re having some work done on the house, so we thought we’d put her up here temporarily until we can clear out the drop cloths and the paint smell and all that, you know. He crinkled his nose for the paint smell and Sarah crinkled hers back.
Monique laughed when they were inside the room. Thank you, Uncle.
Don’t call me Uncle, Jim said.
Then she gave him one long kiss and pushed him out the door.
While her mom tried to sleep, Rhoda looked around the kitchen for dinner ideas. Canned baked beans, canned corn, instant mashed potatoes from a packet. That would be easy enough. She put a kettle on for the potatoes, nuked the corn, opened the can of beans into a pot, and by the time the kettle went off, her father drove up in his battered old F-150. No one in the family drove anything worth looking at.
Her father walked partway to the house, then stopped and looked around. The trees, the mountain, antlers along the roof, the flower beds. He always did this. All her life, from her earliest memories. She didn’t know what it was about.
Hey Dad, she said when he finally stepped inside. Looking at the trees?
You always stop and look around before you come in the house, or into any building, or even into a boat or truck. What is that?
What? he asked. I don’t know.
You’re in trouble with Mom.
Leaving her alone all day. She’s ready to kill.
I asked if I could take her to a doctor, he said.
I know, Rhoda said.
She told me. I was sticking up for you. And I brought a doctor, Bishop. He said she has a sinus infection and needs to go in for X rays tomorrow morning.
Okay, her father said.
Okay? I’m worried about her, Dad. She seems really sick. The pain is making her crazy.
Huh, he said. Then he walked down the hallway and eased the door open into the bedroom. He could hear Irene’s ragged breathing, her throat clogged up. He eased the door shut and walked around the bed in the dark, lay down behind Irene, and put an arm around her.
Mm, she said, and pushed back into him, something so natural and easy. He closed his eyes, not wanting to lose this, a moment increasingly rare between them. Basic comfort, the two of them needing each other. Why wasn’t this enough?
His first attraction to Irene had been instinct. He was in grad school at Berkeley, becoming a medievalist, but he was outclassed and he knew it. Couldn’t keep up with the others. He was fine on the primary texts but couldn’t keep up on the secondary documents, long histories and registers, almanacs, journals, all in Middle English. Religious documents in Middle English, Old English, and Latin. Then all the criticism, keeping up with current books and articles. It was just too much. And he didn’t have French or Old French, which was a big problem.
A friend in the program introduced him to Irene, at a group dinner in a cheap restaurant. She had long blond hair then, blue eyes. She looked like something from an Icelandic saga. She didn’t talk in jargon. A preschool teacher, still in education, but not intimidating. He felt he could breathe, finally. She was safe.
Gary held Irene and tried to remember back to who they had been at twenty-four years old, tried to feel what he had felt then, but it was a long way back. Irene moaned again, moved away from him and tried to clear her throat, threw back the covers suddenly.
I can’t swallow, she said. I can’t breathe, and now I can’t swallow. How am I supposed to get any air?
She walked into the bathroom and Gary sat up. Is there anything I can do?
Make it stop, she said. I can’t breathe. I can’t sleep. The pain won’t go away. And now I’m dizzy. The Vicodin. She gargled, tried to clear her throat.
Come back to bed.
I’m drowning, she said. Maybe food will help. And some tea.
So she dressed and they went to the kitchen. Rhoda had food on the table, a cup of hot tea ready.
Thank you, Irene said, and she gave Rhoda a kiss on her forehead. Gary wadded up newspaper at the fireplace, stacked small sticks in a tepee, a few thicker pieces and a log, lit the edges and fanned it until a good fire was going.
Irene started crying. She was trying to eat some mashed potatoes and beans, but then she was just crying.
Mom, Rhoda said.
Irene, Gary said, and they sat on either side of her, put their arms around her.
It really hurts, she said. It just won’t stop. But she wasn’t crying only about the pain, she knew. She had an excuse, finally, to cry without hiding, and it was impossible to stop. It had a volume and depth, a physical space inside her, vaulted, a carving out of everything. Gary leaving her, after thirty years spent in this cold, unforgiving place. She didn’t know how to stop that, how to slow the momentum of years, how to make him see.
By the time Jim returned from dropping Monique at the hotel, Rhoda was already home. At the sink, doing his dinner dishes.
Hey, she said. This was a hell of a spread. How come I don’t get Baked Alaska? She was smiling. Making up. And she looked pretty good to Jim. He kissed her and pulled her close.
Hey, wait. Let me get the soap off my hands first.
Jim was taking off Rhoda’s jeans right there at the sink.
I take it the meeting went well? Rhoda asked, but her voice was getting lower.
Jim kneeled before her on the kitchen floor.
Never mind, she murmured.
Afterward, they played Yahtzee at the kitchen table. Rhoda got a Yahtzee with ones. She gloated and he groaned. Then, her next turn, she got another Yahtzee with ones, on only two rolls.
Whoa, Jim said. The gods are out there.
He got a crap roll, everything but a three, went for twos, got one more but that was it.