A hawk banked in the gray daybreak, head hunched, eyes darting beneath a cross of wings. What could it see? Nothing scampered or skittered along the ice, nothing gamey or meaty worth a closer look, nothing with fight. That hawk would have seen only me, a boy in his long johns, curled up tight as a fiddlehead, alone on a frozen lake surrounded by remote miles of woods and farmland and a handful of sagging houses gone dark.
It’s been twenty odd years now since I was that boy, my ear to the ice, taking in the wide view. I cupped my hands over my nose and blew what little steam I had left into them. A black dog bounded back and forth along the unruly lakeshore, stopping only to bark. The pine trees that crowded the edge of the lake stirred and two figures appeared, then three more. I willed myself to sit up, waved my arms. “Over here,” I hollered, scraping my throat raw.
Then I saw it, just out of my reach, a hole, dark as spilled ink. That was where the ice had given way and the moonlit lake had swallowed my mother. I scrambled to my knees and lunged, reaching as if she might still have been clinging there. The edge collapsed and I backed away.
A man’s voice. “Hang on. We’re coming for you.”
“Hurry,” I whispered.
The ice snapped and twanged, eerie vibrations whiplashing across the surface pink with sunrise. Two men slid onto the lake, took stiff steps until they reached me. They wore uniforms, hats with ear flaps tied on top, black boots, tank-colored jackets with a county sheriff patch in the shape of Minnesota. One kneeled on the ice and motioned for the other to pass him a blanket. He was stumpy with wide-set eyes and a runny nose he wiped with his sleeve.
“Hey, there. Hey,” he said, touching me carefully, covering my shoulders in dark wool. “I’m the sheriff. We’re here to help you okay? You’re dry. You go in? No?”
I shook my head.
“Holy shit,” the other man said. He was tall with a mustache that caught bits of tobacco as he spat onto the ice.
“Stop gawking and check on that ambulance, would you? Where the hell are they? And scoot that sled over.”
“You got it.” He pushed the yellow sled with his boot then turned his back and talked into a radio he’d unclipped from his belt.
“Son?” the sheriff said.
“You’re not my dad.” I closed my eyes and a drift of sleep blew over me. I wanted to lay back down, curl back up, turn back time.
“No. I’m not your dad. C’mon now. Keep those eyes open. We’re gonna get you off this ice and find your parents, okay? What’s your name, son?”
“Wes,” I said. “Wes Ballot.”
“Ballot? Your dad Jack Ballot?”
I nodded. “Is he here? Up at the cabin?”
The sheriff hesitated, tugged the matted fur on his coat collar. “He’s in town. He leave you out here by yourself?”
I shook my head.
“Okay so how about mom? Where’s your mother?”
I looked past him to the last place I had seen her. “There,” I said. “The ice took her.” Saying the words turned my mouth cold.
The sheriff sat back on his boots and pinched the bridge of his thick nose. “Carl.” The other man turned and the sheriff pointed to the ice. “Tell them we need search and rescue. Tell them…” He shook his head.
The men maneuvered me onto the padded sled. Our tiny caravan set out for shore. The ice creaked as we skidded along, its contours shivering over my tailbone and up my spine. She was right beneath me, in the frozen water, pecking for a way out.
“You can’t leave her here. You have to find her,” I begged through chattering teeth. I craned my neck, watching the hole get smaller and smaller. “Please,” I said. The men at the end of the sled rope only apologized.
I left Bright Lake on my back, cocooned in earthy blankets, staring blankly at the empty sky. My mother was left to the fish.
She swore she heard a loon cry that night. She swore it was stranded out there on the groaning ice. I’d said it was my father trying to get under her skin, was all. But she didn’t listen to me. A couple in the cabin not far from ours had heard it, too, or so they thought. They’d chalked up the loon and distant cries to nighttime sounds, phantom noises that disturb sleep then disappear—the thud of the fallen thing down, the honk of the horn silent. It was the persistence of the dog that whined to go out in the bare first light of morning, a neighbor’s cabin door wide open, lights still on, the something not right on the lake, that prompted them to call for help.
At the hospital, doctors pumped me full of warm liquid and checked my toes and fingers for frostbite. Nurses wrapped me in blankets and gave me hot sweet drinks. They told me how lucky I was I didn’t freeze to death. What words I had, I’d used up. I turned away when they asked me questions, wishing I could erase the images fresh in my mind. My mother’s face, chicory blue and close to dead, was all I could see whether my eyes were open or shut.
When my father finally showed, he stood in the doorway, wondering I suppose like I was, how this could be real, how this could be happening. He plowed his fingers through his brown hair and yanked the roots, knotting the truth into his brain. He threw his coat in a chair then laid his sour body across mine. The stink of booze seeping out pores and wood smoke from yesterday smothered me. I wanted to latch on to him and throw him off at the same time. He pushed breaths out in quick huffs and his chest heaved against my ribs. He was not one to cry and made fun of me when I did, but I could tell he was fighting tears. He lifted off me and caught my eyes then swept his calloused hand from his nose, over the scrub of haywire whiskers around his mouth, down to his neck.
“They tell you about mom?” The words, tiny and clipped, sniveled out of me.
“Aw, Wes,” he said. “What the hell happened?”
“Where were you?” I could feel my face cinching down as I remembered the unanswered cries for help.
“I got here as soon as I could.”
“No. Last night. How come you didn’t come back?”
He dragged a chair across the linoleum floor and sat down. “You try to pull her out?”
“I did, I swear I did. The ice kept breaking.” The tears came then, along with the rest. “She had such a tight hold I almost went in with her. It’s my fault, I know it. I couldn’t get her out.”
“Why didn’t you go for help, Wes?” His voice was rough and strained, a tea kettle set to boil.
She was there again, reaching for me, begging me not to leave her. “She was scared to be alone.” I wished for the hawk to come through the window, pluck me out of bed and carry me away, drop me in a nest far from where I was. “You didn’t answer. Where were you?”
My father folded over and made an animal sound. “Got in some trouble. Spent the night in town.” He looked up, his eyes bleary and bloodshot.
“Jail, you mean.”
“Yeah, Wes. Jail. I spent the night in jail, okay? And you spent the night blubbering out there instead of going for help. Now look—” He caught himself but the knife was in. He reached out and touched my hand. “I’m sorry, Little. I didn’t mean that. It wasn’t your fault.”
“You should have come back.”
“Lot of things I should have done.”
We heard familiar voices at the same time—my grandmother, Ruby, cursing in the corridor, demanding attention, and my grandfather, Gip, telling her to quiet down. I could picture them out there, Ruby with her arms folded high on her chest, her dentures clicking as she talked. She would be wearing a housedress I knew. I’d never seen her in anything else. That and her ornery face is what made her look old. And Gip, he’d be behind her, his big head tilted forward, his eyes canopied under his heavy brow. I once told my mother Gip reminded me of a buffalo ready to charge and she stifled a laugh with the palm of her hand.
“Great,” my father said. He pulled a can of Skoal from his back pocket then tucked a dip into his cheek.
“You look like shit, Jack.” That was what Ruby said to my father when she walked in. “Suppose it makes sense.” My father and Gip shook hands and touched each other’s shoulders. Ruby made a beeline for me.
She sat down and put a twitching hand to her chest. “Came as soon as we heard. Quick as we could.” Her tired eyes were rubbed red. She reeked of smoke. “What on earth were you two doing out there? Middle of the night like that.”
My mother had roused me from bed well past midnight and I had protested the way a boy of twelve would. I pulled the blanket over my head. “Leave me be. I’m trying to sleep.”
She’d kept on drinking even after their fight had ended and my father had taken off. Her speech was slurred and rummy. She pulled the bottom of my blanket so hard she lost her balance and landed hind-end on the floor. I was uncovered and she was laughing uncontrollably. She righted herself then kneeled next to my bed. “Wes, please. We gotta go help it.”
“A loon’s out there.”
And so I told Ruby, “Mom heard a loon. She thought it was stranded.”
Gip shut his eyes and let go a breath through his teeth.
“And what were you supposed to do about that?”
“I don’t know, Ruby. I went with her is all.”
“In your long johns?”
“She was all dressed. She dragged me out of bed. I barely had time to grab my coat.”
“Leave him be, Ruby,” my father said. “I think he’s had enough.”
“I will talk to my grandson if I goddamn well feel like it. I don’t need your permission.”
“Lower your voice,” Gip said.
“Don’t you start in on me now.”
Late day sunlight filtered in through windowpanes crusted white and smeared with fingerprints. I thought about the full white moon, its surface the face of a banished man my mother once warned me could see everything. Who was watching out for her now? “Don’t you care at all? They left her out there, you know,” I cried. “By herself. She hates to be alone.” My mom was a hugger and I ached for her arms around me.
The bickering stopped and Ruby hung her head. “Ah, Val,” she said, her face contorting with a pain so deep it made me wince. She grabbed my hand and squeezed it hard in the way a person might bite down on a stick to be tough. Her mouth sloped open and a breathful cry sunk out of her.
Gip stared at Ruby as if he feared her mourning might be contagious.
“What?” she asked him. “I’m not allowed to cry over our dead daughter? She drowned, Gip. Dead and gone. She’s not coming back.” Gip flinched and blinked hard. She let go the clench she had on my hand and banged the bedrail. “And, you,” she said, turning on my father, her voice raised. “This is all your goddamned fault. Fat lot of good you are. Sheriff told us you were in the drunk tank. I warned her. I told her, ‘Nothing good ever gonna come of Jack Ballot’. It was always one thing after another with you. And now look.” Ruby cocked her head back and raised her brows, satisfied she’d been right all along.
My father was tall and lean, but her accusation clobbered him, laid him out. “We got in a fight,” he said. “Just a fight. I didn’t know she’d go out on the ice like that.”
“That’s not true,” I said. “You’re lying. She said she wanted to and you said no. You never let her do anything.”
“For shit sake. What do you want me to do? I told her I didn’t think it was safe. You could have stopped her, too, you know. Jesus, Wes.” He slapped his bare palm against the door frame. The force rippled through his body. He spun in a slow circle, his hands woven together on top of his head, elbows flapping in front of his eyes.
“Calm down,” Gip said. “No one’s accusing you of anything. You pull yourself together now. For the boy.”
“Good luck with that,” Ruby mumbled.
A nurse hurried in, her white shoes chirping against the slick floor. “Everything okay in here? What’s the commotion?”
She looked from one face to the next, hands splayed along her wide hips. My father was pacing like a trapped animal. Gip and Ruby took turns glaring at each other. Me, I was shattered. “I think Wes has had enough for one day, folks,” she said. “Let’s get you all out of here so he can get some rest.”
“We just got here,” Ruby said.
“And you’re about to leave,” the nurse countered. “The doctor will meet you in the lounge and you all can figure out when our patient here can go home. And you,” she said, pointing to my father. “Sheriff’s out there and wants to talk.”
Ruby picked her purse up off the floor and settled it into the crook of her arm. “We’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Get some sleep now, Wes,” Gip said. “Everything’s going to be fine.”
My father looked worse than he had when he walked in. He stepped up to my bedside. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there,” he whispered. “I am. I let you down. The both of you.” He shook his head. “That mother of yours…” He kissed my forehead and turned to leave.
“Dad,” I said. “What about Elizabeth?” The cat had been sleeping with me and scurried away when my mom pulled the blanket off.
“Ah, shit,” he said. “I’ll go find her. Don’t worry.”
The sheriff came in not long after that to check on me one last time. His hat was off and his coat unzipped. His big belly poked out over his stumpy legs. When I was little, maybe five or six, I found a nest full of baby mice, hairless and pink, no bigger than gumdrops. Elizabeth had killed the mother and left it on the doorstep. I’d wanted to help those mice by stomping them right there but I couldn’t bring myself to do it even though I knew they didn’t stand a chance. Instead, I tucked them under a leaf and hoped it might be enough shelter from harm. The sheriff, he looked at me the way I suppose I’d looked at those baby mice. He made a show of tucking in my covers, blinked his wide bird eyes, nodded and walked out.
The hospital corridor was dimmed at night and hallway traffic limited to nurses and orderlies who came and went, sometimes loitering at the desk to talk.
My eyelids were drape heavy. With each thick blink, I drifted back to Bright Lake. Shuffled in with my hospital room, greenlit from the parking lot lights, I saw a firelit cabin, my mother sipping bourbon from a jelly jar, eyelashes brushing her black veil of bangs each time she tipped the glass. Between the muffled beeping of alarms and monitors in other rooms, I heard my parents arguing, shrill pointed accusations, thunderous denials. White blankets and sterile walls became the expanse of ice twisting along the serpentine lakeshore. With the hushed voices of the staff, my father’s voice, his hand on my shoulder. “Little,” he said. “Wake up.” I opened my eyes and he was standing over me, his face so close I could smell the chew and black tabs of licorice he kept in his shirt pocket. I could smell the whiskey. He still hadn’t shaved and wore the same thin flannel overshirt.
“What time is it?”
He put his finger to his lip and glanced over his shoulder at the door. “Shhh. It’s late. I’m not supposed to be here.” His eyes drooped. “I went back to the cabin. I got something to ask you.”
I hauled myself up to look at him face-to-face. Nothing hurt on me. Not my bones or muscles. But I felt spongy and weak from the inside out.
“Tell me the truth, now. Where is she?” His words came out sticky, pasted together.
“Elizabeth? She was in there. I swear.”
“Not the goddamned cat. The cat’s in the truck. Your mother. Where’s your mother?”
I’d heard that menace in his voice, when he plunked each word down, saving the heaviest for last. It was the whiskey, sure, but I’d heard it when he was sober, too. He didn’t like to be crossed. My mother knew that as well as anyone. But she never could seem to stop herself. She’d start in on him right when he’d draw a line with her, daring him to do something about it.
“You know where she is,” I said.
“That’s the thing, Wes. No body,” he said. His eyes flashed, letting me in on the mystery he’d concocted. “Sheriff says ‘wait till spring.’ Course by that time, she’ll be long gone, won’t she? That was her plan, right? Forget that bullshit about the loon. You can tell me. She was trying to get back at me, wasn’t she? Give me a taste of my own medicine. Stick me here with you.”
I squeezed my eyes closed and wished my mother had pulled herself out, snuck back to the cabin, changed her clothes, warmed up by the fire. But I knew the truth. At the end, she looked right past me, her eyes wide open like she could see heaven. She didn’t call to me or her husband. “Mama.” That’s what she said. And I cried for my mother in that hospital room, calling to her for help, calling to her though I knew she could not come for me. She’d huffed out one last disbelieving breath and let go. That was that.
“You think I made this up? You think I didn’t watch her drown?” I was bolt upright, blood throbbing in my eardrums. Wherever a soul is—in the heart, tendons, the vital organs beneath bones, behind the eyes, between the ears—it broke apart in me, splintered, became a thing that longed but did not have.
“Never know. She was a sneaky one. Had to be sure. Jesus.” His lips smacked and slobbered against each other. His head lolled and he let it dangle over the chair back. I figured he was set to sleep off what he’d tied on but then he towed his head back up and stared past me. “How many times did I tell her. I’d say, ‘Don’t fuck with the ice, Valerie.’ And she was always, ‘Don’t you tell me what to do.’ Blah, blah, blah. The one time, the one time, I’m not there—”
“One time? You always leave. I heard you, you know. I’m not deaf. You said divorce and she said, ‘Over my dead body.’ Guess you got what you wanted, didn’t you?”
“Don’t be like that. It was talk, that’s all.”
“You even love her? You sad even?”
He sunk over the bedrail, his head buried in his arms. “Course I am. I didn’t mean for anyone to get hurt. I just couldn’t stand it anymore. Not one more goddamned day of it.”
“So go, why don’t you? See if I care.”
“You don’t mean that,” he said.
But I did. I wanted him to leave and to hold onto me. I wanted him to shut the hell up and to tell me I’d done all I could. I wanted his comfort. I got his pain.
Slouch turned to slump and he fell asleep in his chair, chin on his chest. An orderly came in and found my father passed out. He tapped his shoulder. “Mister. You can’t be in here. Mister.”
My father startled awake, ready to fight. He looked around the room like he hadn’t walked through the door himself. “Dozed off sitting with my son, here.”
“Mister, you’re drunk. Get out of here or I’m calling the police.”
My father put up his hands in surrender. “No, no,” he said. “Don’t need to make any calls. I gotta go,” he said to me, steadying himself against the bedrail. “I’m sorry, Little. Maybe I was hoping you got it wrong.” He pointed his finger at me and narrowed his eyes. “Bet you never saw that loon of hers, though, did you?”
“You want to know where she is? I’ll tell you. She’s dead and it’s you who killed her.”
He swayed toward me, trailing a plume stale with whiskey, his eyes creased.
“Mister. I’m warning you.”
I turned my back on him. “Get away from me.”
Somehow, in the half darkness, I’d fallen into a sick, haunted sleep. I woke unrested to a bustle of morning sounds, staff around me. I kept my eyes closed, playing possum so I could hear what they’d say to each other but not to me. I didn’t dare squint through my lashes, shudder at their talk, protest. The night nurse spoke in knowing whispers, telling her replacement about my father, stumbling and belligerent, pushing the orderly who escorted him out. Each sentence started with “well,” which turned my broken family’s story into gossip. They agreed he must be devastated, losing his wife, the mother of his child like that. Not even being able to bury the body. The body, they said, like that was all my mother was now. A body unrecovered.
“What’s he look like? The father?”
“Good looking but you can tell he’s a drunk. Not worth the time, honey.”
Their voices came up as they went over the clipboard that hung on the end of my bed. I stirred to stop their talk. The new girl, young and stringy with a black mole on her cheek the size of a raisin, introduced herself as Sandy and waved to the one whose shift ended, then rolled me over and took my temperature for the umpteenth time, checking the inside of me with a probe that shot me full of shame.
“Doctor says you’re going home tomorrow. That’s good, huh.” I had spent nights away from my mother, but I’d never known a place called home where she did not live. I didn’t know what home was without her.
Gip and Ruby lived over the border in Wisconsin, not far from the Minnesota line, in a town called Loma. They were not the sort of people to look for a motel, stay overnight in a place, so they returned to the hospital already worn out from driving back and forth. I’d spent the rest of the morning in that blurry place beneath wakefulness and short of sleep, where voices trailed in and out with the real and imagined. So I wasn’t quite sure what it meant when I heard Ruby say, “You will tell him, Jack,” with the stress on you. My father’s voice was a murmur, a hum, but I knew the sound of it and opened my eyes.
The three of them were standing in the corner, arms crossed, heads bent together.
“What’s going on?” I said, sitting up.
My father was freshly showered. He’d changed his clothes but hadn’t shaved. He broke free of Gip and Ruby. “You’re looking better. Got more color today.”
I could see regret in his phony smile, in the way he made a point to stand up straight and sober. And I felt bad, too, for the way I’d talked to him. I tried to apologize back by nodding in response, tightening up a smile for him. We looked each other in the eye, and, in that moment, I thought all was forgiven between us.
“Nurse said I can leave tomorrow.”
“Yeah, Little. I heard that. That’s good, right there.”
Ruby shook her head and kept her arms crossed as she sat in the only chair. Gip came and stood next to my father. “So you’re feeling better?” he asked.
I shrugged. What was better anyway?
Ruby prodded my father in the thigh with her bony elbow. “Go on.”
My father looked at her. He rolled his neck and let the wave travel up to his eyes before he turned back to me. “So, Wes,” he said. “Here’s the thing.”
In the pause before what came next, I went back to the night before, him saying maybe my mother was on the run, that she’d crawled away somehow. Hope gathered up in me, a wisp that puts broken things back together.
“Gip and Ruby and me, we got to talking. We think it’s better you go stay with them for a bit. While I figure some things out.”
Ruby chimed in. “You can stay right in Valerie’s room, your mom’s, right in her bed.” She said this not knowing I could leap there in my mind, put my mother under the covers, forever shivering and wet.
“But, why?” I asked my father. “Is it because of last night? I didn’t mean that. I don’t want you to go.”
“No, Little, it’s not that. It’s just, I got things to take care of. It’s better this way.”
“When will you come get me then?”
“Let’s take her one step at a time, Wes,” Gip said.
“Me and Gip are going over to the apartment, get some things for you. Ruby’ll stay here. We’ll get you all squared away. You’ll see.”
I could feel my head quivering, my eyes flickering, a weak flame in a gust. “This is wrong. Don’t I get a say?”
“You listen now,” Ruby said. “Your dad doesn’t know the first thing about taking care of you on his own. Your grandfather and me know what to do now. You need a roof over your head, square meals. Your dad figures things out, he’ll be back for you.”
“We got to get going now, Wes,” my father said. “Something I want to give you.” He stuck his hands in the big patch pockets of his oil-stained work coat and pulled both back out as full fists held downward, nodding at me to choose. I tapped the left hand and he spread his fingers. Nothing fell to the floor. Empty. I looked at him and saw weariness there, a burdened man worn down by repenting. With his eyes he told me to try again. I put my finger on the center knuckle of his right hand. He rolled it over and there, resting in his craggy palm, was a bird whittled out of poplar, its eyes and feathers, the folds of its wings neatly etched, lifelike. I picked it up and held it just so, careful not to crush it in case a heart beat beneath the wood.
“Will you come back?”
“Yeah, Little. I’ll be back. Just you wait.”
He pulled me into his arms and I rested my face against his chest, wishing I could climb into his shirt pocket with his licorice tabs. The boozy smell was mostly gone but what was there I tried to source. Shower soap, chewing tobacco, wood smoke and cigarettes. The last thing, the final disappearing note, my mother’s lemon perfume.
During my last night in the hospital, I made my way to the window and set the tiny bird on the sill. Snow had started to fall again and I scraped a spiral in the buildup of frost, then inspected the ice under my fingernails. I looked at the silhouettes leaning against the lamppost below and thought of my father, the one who let me operate the gear shift in his truck, the one who could catch in his mouth every kernel of popcorn I tossed into the air. Maybe he was down there holding Elizabeth, stroking her gray fur, scanning the windows for me. But only nurses were there, smoking against the side of the building, their white breath lost in the swirling snow blown up by a passing plow.
I sat in the front seat of the Plymouth between Gip and Ruby on our way back to Wisconsin and their house in Loma. I’d tried to get in the back seat but it was piled high with garbage bags, cardboard boxes and a suitcase I recognized.
“Is that our stuff?”
Ruby told me to never mind, that we’d go through those things later. She was a tiny woman prone to perturbed sighs. She seemed to leak life, like a shriveled balloon from yesterday’s parade. Wrinkles and lines clustered between her eyes and on her forehead and in the smoker’s puckers around her thin lips. She had graying brown hair that she pulled back in a knot during the day and untied at night. Neither of their faces showed signs of laughter. Gip had spent years laboring at the feedlot and was big as a boulder from his thick neck to his rock-hard beer gut. He’d fought in France during the war and had a bluish divot where a bullet had grazed his right temple. Oiled ringlets of gray hair coiled on top of his head and his eyes sometimes glassed over like they should have been covered with coins. When I was real little, I’d cowered behind my mother whenever he talked to me. But she warned me off Ruby more. “Watch yourself, Wes,” she’d say. “Don’t poke the bear.”
I could smell lemons even over Gip’s tree-shaped air freshener and the cigarette smoke. I twisted around and sniffed for my mother like a hound, expecting to see her sitting in the back seat, smiling her crooked-teeth smile, or fiddling with the silver hoops on her favorite earrings, or folding her hair behind her ears with both hands. But she wasn’t there.
“Sit down before you make me wreck,” Gip said. I tried to scoot closer to Ruby, but she shoved me toward Gip and told me not to crowd her. I wanted to crawl into the back seat and hide but I was trapped. The heat blasted from the vents, and Charley Pride was singing “Kiss An Angel Good Morning” on the radio, and all I could think about was my mother under the ice.
“I’m gonna be carsick.”
“It’s that goddamned smell,” Ruby said.
Gip cranked the wheel right and the car lurched onto the shoulder. Ruby flung the door open. I clambered over her lap but fell to the ground, skinning my chin. By the time I’d emptied my stomach, I was on my knees like a penitent, covered in blood and vomit and gravel.
Ruby nudged me aside and got out of the car. She grabbed something from the back seat.
I tried to wipe the vomit off my mouth with my shirtsleeve but the gravel scraped into my cuts, making the pain even worse.
“Hold on now,” Ruby said. “Get your hands off there before you get an infection.” She dabbed at my scrape with one of my mother’s white blouses. Drops of blood and dirt dotted the fabric as she turned it over and over. “That ought to about do it.” She lifted my throbbing chin, then turned my face from side to side. Close to her like that, our eyes locked in sadness, she allowed me to see her grief. Her tears welled but didn’t fall. Instead they seemed to recede, like the cascade went down her throat and into her belly. It was deep and fleeting and gone.
Gip peered over from the driver’s seat. “Can we get back on the road now or we waiting here all afternoon?”
“You done puking or you got more in you?” Ruby asked.
“I don’t know. I think I’m done.”
“Well let’s get going then. Climb back in there.”
Ruby got in next to me, pulled the heavy door shut then opened it right back up.
“Jesus you stink! Take that shirt off,” she said, her hand outstretched. “I mean it.”
I didn’t want to take off my clothes no matter how bad they smelled. I’d had enough of baring myself to the cold and I was already shivering.
“No,” I said. Tears pooled in my eyes and there was no blinking them back.
“Take off that shirt, Wes,” Gip said. “Do as you’re told.”
I mopped my face with a vomit-soaked sleeve, took off the sweatshirt and handed it over. She dropped it on the frozen ground next to my mother’s blood-stained blouse. “That wasn’t so hard now, was it?” she said. I crossed my arms over my thin undershirt. “And turn up the heat before we freeze to death. God.” She went back to staring out the window.
We passed mile after silent mile of barren winter fields and shuttered barns and clumps of white pine. Fence rails pointed us down the road and brief squalls dappled huddled cows white. It was near dark when we passed the municipal green tower with the word “Loma” still visible, though the paint had faded over the years. We’d been on the road nearly three hours and I was ready to put my feet on the ground.
This was the town where my mother grew up, the town we visited when she needed money. That was all it was to me—a town where her parents lived in a cinderblock house next to a trailer park on a street called Manhattan Avenue. My mother and I were last there in the summer when slobbering dogs snapped on the end of chains and kids rode Big Wheels in the street and stared at us when we drove by. Now, the street was empty and dim lights were on in the trailers we passed. We pulled up to the dark house. I’d never been there without my mother and I wanted more than anything to not be there at all.
Gip made the first move, swatting his big palms on the steering wheel. “Well,” he said and got out of the car. Ruby exited next. They left their doors open, daring me to choose sides.
“You waiting on an invitation, Wes? Let’s go,” said Ruby as she climbed the rickety steps. I slid out the driver’s seat and slammed both car doors shut.
Gip had already gotten himself a beer and was sipping off the foam when I walked in. Their house felt as foreign to me as the moon. I curled my fingers and stroked my empty palms and longed for my mother’s hand in mine.
“Should I grab something out of the car? From the back?”
“We’ll get around to that, don’t worry,” said Ruby. “I picked up a few things down at the Goodwill. Toothbrush is in the bathroom. You don’t want to end up toothless like me.”
“Boy’s probably tired. Let’s get him settled, how about?” Gip said.
“I mean to,” said Ruby. “You mind if I take my shoes off? That okay by you?” Then to me, “You go on back,” she said, gesturing to the hall as she slid into her slippers. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
I followed Gip down the hallway to the closed door at the end. My mother’s old bedroom. I took slow steps, afraid almost of what I would find there, of falling through the crevice of my own life and winding up in hers.
He turned the knob and flipped the switch. The overhead light had a missing bulb so the room was half in shadow. There was a twin bed with a flowery bedspread, a white dresser with chipped paint, a mismatched side table, faded pink shag carpet. The walls were covered in birds-eye maple paneling and posters of smiling boys I didn’t know.
Ruby came up behind me. “We kept it just the way she liked it.”
“No keeping it the same ever brought her back, though, did it?” Gip said. He sat down on the end of the bed and smoothed the bedspread with one hand. “Once she was gone, she was gone. And now she’s gone for good.”
Ruby wiggled her lower jaw like a rattle. “There’s your things,” she said, pointing to a white bag on the bed.
I walked through the doorway, wary of the watchful eyes on me—the long-billed birds in the knotted wood, the mysterious boys, the grandparents I barely knew.
“Hold on a second,” Ruby said. She snapped her fingers and pointed at me, then disappeared. She came back with a picture frame and made a fuss out of putting it on top of the dresser. “There,” she said. My mother, leaning on a twisted piece of driftwood, barely smiling, her delicate hand posed on her cheek. One more set of eyes.