Authors: Anne Simpson
Tags: #General Fiction
You must think of them, Ingrid said.
Mum and Dad – living in that house, I mean. You must miss them more than I do.
Sometimes, Roger said, but they’re a long way off. It’s as if they both got into a little boat and started rowing away. I can hardly see them now.
Ingrid thought of Lisa in a rowboat. But she didn’t want to think of her in a rowboat.
They go away from us, he said gently. It’s what they do.
But they didn’t go immediately, Ingrid thought. For a while they were too present to be dead.
Damian had got it wrong. Lisa couldn’t possibly be dead.
Ingrid had to be calm, quite calm, because then she could go there and see for herself. She would drive; she would be fine. And she would take things. Food and water. She went to the basement, got the old cooler, and put bottles of water into it. Then she added bottles of cranberry juice and soda water, and she even put in a freezer pack, since it would keep things cold. Forks and knives and spoons and plastic glasses and napkins printed with clowns and balloons, from a long-ago birthday party. Sandwiches, she thought. She stood in the kitchen wondering about sandwiches and then got a loaf of bread out of the refrigerator.
She started sobbing again, standing in the kitchen with the loaf of bread in one hand. There was no need for bread or water or cranberry juice. She hung on to the counter. Perhaps she was on the floor, sprawled on its blue-and-white tiles, or maybe she got up from the floor, still holding on to the loaf of bread for dear life. She could have been screaming.
Greg, she cried, as if he were standing in the kitchen in front of her.
Greg would have to be told, she thought. Her husband who was not her husband any more. She didn’t even know where he was living just then: whether he was still in his
houseboat in Vancouver. She’d have to be the one to tell him. She’d have to say, Greg, your daughter is dead.
Maybe she said this out loud. Greg,
She put the loaf of bread in the cooler. She didn’t make sandwiches; she just stuffed the bread in, squeezing it so it would fit. Bread – she had bread. She tried to think what else she needed, because it was a two-hour drive. But she had no idea. What did a person need on a trip like this? What should she take?
Nothing was where it was supposed to be. The car keys. Where were they? Things spilled out of the string drawer: tickets, paper clips, a bathing cap. Ingrid’s mother’s yellow bathing cap covered with plastic petals! String, tape, a glove. She couldn’t see. Where were her keys? She didn’t know, she didn’t know. Then she saw the car keys where they were supposed to be, on the hook by the door. She yanked at them and the little shelf fell down, a jangle of keys springing off hooks.
, said the shelf, upside down, the keys flung this way and that across the floor.
But she needed a nightgown, a toothbrush. She ran upstairs, two at a time. Why was she hurrying? Lisa was dead. She found herself in the bathroom taking the toothbrush out of its holder – could that be her own face in the mirror? She held on to the sink, groaning. Whose face was it?
No, she cried, banging at the mirror so the door of the cabinet flew open and her face disappeared.
Were these her own hands, putting a nightgown into an overnight bag? Yes, they must be. Underwear. The drawer fell on the floor when she pulled it open. Underwear, socks – a pile of things on the floor. She tried to zip up the overnight bag, but the zipper caught on the underwear. Why did she need an overnight bag, anyway? She left it on the bed and
went downstairs. If she didn’t hurry, her daughter would grow cold. Her own daughter, not someone else’s.
She took everything out to the car. The cooler, her sunglasses, the car keys. That was right, wasn’t it? Yes. That was right. Then she saw she’d forgotten her purse. Why did she need her purse? Her daughter was dead, for God’s sake. But she still had to have her purse, and she went back for it, tossing it on the passenger seat. She sat in the hot car with her sunglasses on, tears streaming down her face.
Collect yourself, she said. Collect yourself.
She wiped her eyes and took deep breaths. If she wasn’t calm, she wouldn’t be able to drive. She wouldn’t be able to do it, and she had to. But when she leaned forward to turn the keys in the ignition, she felt the axe in her chest. She felt the sharp blade.
Her hand was on the key in the ignition. Had she started the car? Was it running? Had she locked the door of the house? Oh, for God’s sake. Did she care about the house and whether it was locked? No. She left. Or she tried to leave, but someone had let the terrier out of the house next door and she almost ran over it. She braked just in time, one of those screeching halts that left tire tracks on the street. The dog ran back over the lawn yapping and yapping. The dog was safe. Her daughter was dead. Oh, how was it possible? She hated the little dog, because it was alive and Lisa was dead.
Roger was speaking to her. His hand was on her arm; she was clutching it with her other hand. Tears were running down her face and she didn’t try to brush them away. She glanced at him to see whether he knew anything was wrong.
No, nothing, except the slickness of sweat on his forehead. They were walking along a street, she thought. Yes, that’s what they were doing. A car went past and a plastic bag lifted up languidly in the heat, ballooned into the air, and sank back down. What was he asking her?
Those two were close, weren’t they? Damian and Lisa.
Peas in a pod, she said. Same hair, same smooth skin. God, when I look at Damian, I see her. His eyes aren’t the same colour, but it doesn’t matter. I see her hazel eyes looking into mine. For a while, I could hardly stand it.
Roger stopped, placing his hands on the low stone wall that ran parallel to the sidewalk. I’m sorry, Ingrid. I’m so sorry.
He wasn’t looking at her; he was looking off to the side, as if there was someone else he was talking to just beyond her shoulder. She didn’t know what to say. She faced the gorge and then realized she’d started crying again.
A few more blocks and we’ll be at the Whirlpool Bridge, he said. What would you like to do?
I don’t know.
What can you see from here? he asked soothingly, as if she were a child.
The gorge, you mean?
On the other side of this wall – just weeds and shrubs. Chicory. Sumac. Something with a leaf shaped like a mitten.
And in the gorge there’s a shelf of stone all along the New York side, with trees at the top and trees down below. You wouldn’t think trees would grow there. The river’s a long way down – it’s dark green, but there’s a tint to the green.
It’s rock flour in the water. The rock’s been ground
down as fine as flour, and that’s what gives it the green colour. It’s from the shale and sandstone that comes –
How do you know all this?
I wanted to know, so I found out. Anyway, I can’t see it. It’s there – it’s only a river – but I can’t see it for shit.
They walked back a different way. Each time she lifted her foot to step forward, guiding him, she thought they could have been bounding, very slowly, across River Road onto Morrison.
What’s the hardest thing that’s ever happened to you? she asked.
Marnie leaving, he said. Finding out that Elvis was not going to be like other kids. And my eyes. But when Marnie left I dropped into a black hole. That was the worst.
You went a little crazy.
I don’t remember much. I remember crying. But other than that, it was as if I blacked out for days.
Marnie, mused Ingrid.
You never liked her.
I liked her. There was a lot I liked about her – she was tough as nails. But I thought she was taking you for a ride.
You visited us when you were big as a house. You must have been about six months pregnant with Damian, and Marnie had just found out she was pregnant.
We had that argument.
Ingrid remembered how she’d thrown a white plate with a blue flower on it. The plate had crashed against the refrigerator and broken right across the iris, across its graceful leaves. The plate had belonged to her mother, and she’d regretted it afterward. She regretted calling Marnie a low-life, someone who just wanted to use Roger.
She hadn’t known then how much he loved Marnie until he slapped Ingrid across the face, something no one had ever done, and she’d told him she’d never speak to him again. Her own brother. Words had come out of her mouth that she didn’t mean, and then she couldn’t take them back. She could hear herself saying them. She’d said she’d never darken his door again. And she could see the plate spinning across the room, knowing it would hit the refrigerator. Even in that moment she’d wanted it to fly back to her before it broke into pieces.
I said all those things, she said.
I hated you then. But we don’t have to go over all that.
No, I’d rather not.
It’s done. She’s gone – that’s the thing.
Ingrid didn’t have enough gas to get from Halifax to Antigonish. She stopped somewhere after Truro, just before New Glasgow, at a gas station on top of a hill. One moment she was on the ramp, with the gas station in the distance, a castle in a fairy tale, and the next moment she was driving around, driving around, in a circle, first to the Self Serve, where there were too many cars, and then around again, where she tried to squeeze into a spot at a pump between a pickup and an old Pontiac. She couldn’t do it; she couldn’t reverse the car into the spot. People were getting in and out of their cars, slamming doors, and a radio was turned on full blast. Everything gleamed in the heat. She couldn’t reverse into the spot. The radio was going full blast. It gleamed.
Baby, if you go
She drove around to the Full Serve. Windows gleamed, fenders gleamed.
When she stopped the car and got out, it was like stepping into an oven. A young man appeared; he’d already taken the filter gun out and he was just about to put the nozzle in the tank of her car. He said something to her; his mouth opened and closed. Everything wavered in the heat.
He spoke again.
What was he saying? He said it again.
Regular, she said. Regular. And some oil, maybe. I don’t know.
He shoved the nozzle in the gas tank and went around to lift the hood and check the oil.
Her eyes were streaming and she took off the sunglasses to wipe them. She looked away from him, to the other side of the hill, where a dead elm stood. It was an old woman holding her arms up to the sky.
My daughter died today, she told him.
He had just raised the hood, and now he looked around it. She could see the greasy rag he used.
My daughter, she repeated. She died today.
He looked at her as if she was crazy, but then he must have seen that she was crying.
Would you like a paper towel? he asked.
He got her some paper towel. When he handed it to her, all bunched up, she saw his hand was grimy. The length of greasy rag was in his other hand and he wiped his thumb with it. He was young, younger than Damian. His face was tanned; he had a wispy little beard. But there were no lines in his face at all.
I’m sorry about your daughter. There was a furrow between his brows.
He went back to check the oil, then he put down the hood carefully, dropping it with a practised hand an inch above the catch.
I could get you something, he said, glancing at the coffee shop. Do you want something?
No. Thank you –
She didn’t know what to do with the paper towel so she handed it back to him and he took it, in that grimy hand of his. He tossed it in the bin beside the pumps. It made an arc and dropped down, perfectly, exactly where he’d planned it would go. The phone had dropped on the floor and something had broken.
Damian, what’s wrong?
A terrier went yapping across a lawn. The dog was alive. This boy was alive.
No problem, he said.
He stood there, hands at his sides, until she realized he was waiting. She got out her wallet and gave him four twenty-dollar bills.
I’m really sorry, he said, as he took them. He gave two of the bills back to her. I’ll get your change. Your oil’s fine.
Your oil. I checked it.
Good. Thank you.
She got in the car and started it, putting the air conditioner on high. There was someone in a silver SUV behind her, waiting, and she drove away from the pump. She kept going, and in the rear-view mirror she saw the boy come out with money in his hand. She didn’t want it.
He waved to stop her, but she turned onto the blazing road and went down the hill past the dead elm to the ramp that led back to the highway before pulling the car onto the
shoulder and getting out. She didn’t know what she was doing; she’d hardly pulled the car off the road. It was half on the road, half on the shoulder. She left the door open so that anyone could have slammed into the car, taken the door off. A person was supposed to be in control. She was in control. Everything gleamed in the heat.
She walked in a straight, sure line through the weedy, dry grass by the side of the road, where the clover was all bedraggled, up the slope of the hill. There was a bald eagle at the top of the elm, but she only noticed it because it glided away. Her mother would have said it was a sign, if her mother had been alive, but she wasn’t. It was a sign. She went to the dead tree and threw her arms around it.
Yes, she was crazy. She was half crazy. She wanted to hold something. She would have held that boy at the gas station. The man getting out of the silver SUV to put Premium in the tank. She would have held anyone.
She held the tree. She felt the coarse elm bark under her hands. There were tiny scratch marks later on her hands and her arms, and she didn’t know how they got there. There might have been blood. Was there any blood? If only it had been her, not Lisa. She held on to the elm tree. She held on and held on. That tree was not living; it was dead, but she held on.
Down below, near the road, a boy passed on an ATV. He stopped. He looked up at her and adjusted his yellow helmet. She thought of a hornet, because of his yellow helmet, but he wasn’t real. Some things were real and some things weren’t. The eagle had been real. The tree was real. The boy with the yellow helmet was not real.