By Kristen-Paige Madonia
Jackson scrambled into the passenger seat of the hatchback and looked down the driveway toward the warped fence lining the lawn. Next to him, his mother revved the car. Her head was stooped low towards the steering wheel as she squinted out the window, her shoulders hunched inside her brown coat.
“We’re fine,” he said and tapped his finger on the dashboard clock.
They waited for the frost to melt and the windows to clear before Ivy shifted to drive and skidded away from the house as the tires chomped through patches of snow. “Can’t bring myself to use your sister’s truck yet,” she said. “Hatchback’s got front wheel drive. It’ll do.”
Jackson picked sleep from eyes and adjusted the vent toward his face. It’d been almost two years since his last visit to Colorado, and he’d forgotten how to shake the jetlag. He should’ve made time for breakfast, had a second mug of coffee. A pile of paperbacks lay at his feet, and he moved them to the back next to a plastic crate of records, a stack of Rolling Stone magazines, yellow and water-bled, and a trash bag with clothes spilling out the top. A box filled with Mason jars of red and purple jams were stashed on the floorboard, rusted cans sealed shut with lists of vegetables labeled in black Sharpie ink in his sister’s sloppy handwriting. “Stewed Tomatoes-2006.” “Peaches-2007.”
“You a flight risk?” he asked.
“Always,” she said, and then, “never.”
He strapped on his seatbelt. The damp leather seats stank of road salt and pavement, mildew even, and he figured that was why Ivy suggested he catch a cab when his flight landed the night before.
She carved the car down Highway 70 heading west towards town, and Jackson wondered if he should’ve arranged for a limo, if that was his responsibility or hers. His mind vaguely connected to cuts from a film: a family in black climbing out of a slick stretch town car in a crowded church parking lot. But a week earlier his little sister Sunday turned on that big blue ’88 Dodge she’d been driving since high school, left the gear in park, and sealed the garage door shut. He hasn’t been able to think straight ever since. His boss’s wife in Virginia booked his flight. A buddy helped him pack his suit and dress shoes and gave him a lift to the airport.
“Basement flooded this fall,” Ivy said as she shifted the car from one lane to the other. “I didn’t notice until a few days ago when I was looking through your sister’s boxes,” the syllables lurching in her throat. “There’s rust and water stains everywhere. Probably mold too, just haven’t found it yet,” she said. “I loaded up a bunch of stuff to get rid of. Sunday’s junk I’ve been storing since who knows when. But now I can’t figure out where to take it. The trash or the Goodwill. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which.”
They parked in the church lot, and Jackson scanned the thinly filled rows of cars and trucks dusted with snow while Ivy fidgeted with her coat. The top button was large and bumpy and blue, a replacement that didn’t match the line of small brown ones that ran down the center of her body.
“I don’t know how to do this,” she said.
In front of them a small woman in a trench coat slipped on a patch of ice. They watched her recover and adjust her high-heeled shoe before heading up the stairs. The woman held open the large wooden door for an elderly couple that followed her into the church.
“Is there someone we should’ve called?” he asked. He didn’t recognize anyone in the lot and tried to think of people he knew that may still have known Sunday, but his mind came up blank.
Ivy and Sunday moved from Virginia to Colorado the summer Kyle Cole showed up in town. Kyle Cole was from Gypsum but was taking a road trip through the East Coast, and he fell for Ivy so hard that he moved them out west before the late-summer harvest was finished. Sunday was fifteen, and Jackson was two years out of high school. He’d finally landed a decent job at a produce farm near Charlottesville, so he stayed behind. The first few years Jackson flew out for holidays, for Sunday’s performance in “The Nutcracker” her sophomore year, and then for her graduation. He visited for Ivy and Kyle Cole’s wedding a few years later just before Sunday left for New York, and most recently for Kyle Cole’s funeral, when Sunday came back.
“There must’ve been somebody we should’ve called?” he said, eyeing the Colorado license plates, green and white and dented from bad weather. “Friends?” he asked. “Co-workers?” He thought of his father, Curtis Myers, a shadow sketched on the west coast, an image inked into a handful of childhood memories he no longer trusted.
Ivy shook her head. “I called the ballet school, but it’s been a while since she taught,” she said, and with a final tug the blue button popped loose and disappeared down by the pedals at her feet.
“Anyone from high school?” he asked, searching his memory for a recognizable name. An old boyfriend or friend Sunday dropped into her stories when she wrote or called him from Colorado.
Ivy shrugged. “Notice went in the obits,” she said. She rubbed her finger over the dashboard clock. Three minutes late. “I guess we’ll see who shows up.” And then Jackson was out of the car and opening the door for his mother, who carefully placed her feet on the pavement, the close-toed pumps he hadn’t seen since Kyle Cole’s funeral two years back. “Hate these fucking shoes,” she said and swatted Jackson’s hand, refusing his help. He waited for her to lift herself out of the hatchback, and then they headed to the church, walking through the snow on eggshells, tightropes, balance beams.
When Jackson flew out for Sunday’s high school graduation, she picked him up in the truck and said, “We’re going to Denver,” her blue-green eyes peering out from under a curtain of heavy bangs.
He tossed his duffel in the back and climbed in the passenger seat. “Shouldn’t we be hanging out with Mom?” he asked. “Night-before-graduation family time?”
“Negative,” she said and merged onto the highway heading east. “I’ve got you all to myself tonight.” She leaned forward and punched a Grateful Dead bootleg into the tape deck. “And you and I, my friend, are heading to Denver.”
She was eighteen and he was twenty-four, but she had a fake ID, and they nursed Fat Tire IPAs on the two-hour drive. They talked about a boy she’d been dating — “Writes bad-ass poetry, plays shitty guitar” — and about the restaurant she planned to work in after graduation.
“It’s a lame dive near the river,” she said. “Owner’s a wannabe rock-star and plays cover songs on Saturdays for tourists coming off the water, rafters and gapers on kayaking trips. ‘Brown Eyed Girl.’ ‘Tupelo Honey.’ Next time you see me I’ll know every word to every song Cat Stevens ever wrote.” She shook her head. “Awesome.”
They didn’t make it all the way to Denver but stopped in Morrison for margaritas and tacos, ate chips and salsa, and ordered tequila shots for dessert. They left her truck on Main Street and caught a ride to Red Rocks afterwards, where they bought tickets from a scalper for the Patti Smith show. Jackson paid, his graduation gift, he figured. It was 2007, the year Smith was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and punk rock’s poet laureate opened with “About a Boy,” her tribute to Kurt Cobain. Their seats were nosebleeds, but Sunday knew every word to every song, and Jackson liked the way the music vibrated off the crowd, the way Denver sat in the distance behind the rocks and boulders framing the stage. After the show they caught a ride to a campground where most of the concert kids crashed in tents and cars or in sleeping bags under Aspen trees. They smoked joints smeared and sealed with hash resin and ate cashews in the back of a ‘82 Chrysler Le Baron with a mangy punk kid who’d driven his parents’ car from Boise for the show.
“Sometimes when I go to these things,” Sunday told Jackson, “I think I might run into Dad, you know?” They were stretched out side by side on the ground next to the white convertible, had taken Boise’s sleeping bag from the car after he threw up and passed out in the front seat. “He could be here and we wouldn’t even know it. He could be anywhere,” she said and turned to face Jackson. “Doesn’t that weird you out?”
He shook his head. Last he heard Curtis was on the West Coast. Humboldt or San Francisco, Portland, maybe.
“I write him sometimes,” she said. “He’s in Seattle, but still. He could be here too. He could’ve moved again.”
“You’re too smart for that,” he told her, “those worthless games,” he said, and then he worried he might’ve hurt her feelings, so he added, “I just mean it’s better this way. That you don’t know him,” he said, wondering if it were true.
“When I’ve got enough money I’m moving to New York to be a dancer,” she announced and shifted to her back again to look at the sky, the expanse of constellations and clean bright stars. “And you’ll come and visit. We’ll throw massive dinner parties with bottomless bottles of red wine, and I’ll invite all my smart and talented friends. You can cook shit-tons of food, and we’ll play jazz music, stay up to see the sunrise,” she said. She closed her eyes, and he imagined she could still see the spots of the stars, the flicks of white light behind her eyelids, like live energy.
“We’ll be happy, then, Jacks,” she said.
He envied her back then, the recklessness of being beautiful and uninhibited and brave, of being her.
* * *
The church smelled like pine and incense, and the minister was in the back waiting when he and his mother arrived.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” the man said.
Jackson nodded and looked at the stained carpet, at the stained glass windows framing the room, at anything but the closed casket, polished and spotless up front. They weren’t a church family, never had been, but Jackson knew his mother found comfort in the religious community when Kyle Cole died. Still, he wasn’t sure how it worked – who walked down when, where they would sit, which prayers he’d be expected to stand or kneel for. Kyle Cole’s funeral was a backyard barbecue after the ashes were spread in the Colorado River. Someone read a poem, his brother or maybe a friend of his brother’s, Jackson couldn’t remember which. That would’ve made sense for Sunday, too. This –– it felt all wrong, and he suddenly wished they’d thought things through more carefully. The crosses and candles and books of prayers and hymns, they had nothing to do with his sister. Sunday would’ve rather been anywhere but there.
He walked to the front when told to do so, and sat with his mother once the service began. Next to him, she cried, staining her brown coat with fat wet drops. She eyed the floor, head down as her hair fell over her face. He’d never seen her that way: humble and humiliated. He tried to focus on the sound of the heat kicking on and off instead of her sobs. He imagined being at the farm in Virginia and tried to move himself out of the church, away from the parking lot, and back across the country before the news about Sunday landed. Digging for sweet potatoes. Tilling the compost pile and chopping wood for the winter. But inside the church a woman read and the minister talked about living honest lives. There was a request to make donations to the Denver School of Ballet, and eventually someone stood at the podium and invited the crowd to join the family at the cemetery.
He thought of the only other funeral he’d been to – his grandfather’s – and he remembered a peacefulness to the saying goodbye part when they lowered the casket. But with this, with a suicide, there seemed to be nothing but anger and unanswered questions.
“What a waste,” one woman said afterward as they stood in the back. She took Jackson’s hand and squeezed. “Your sister was just beautiful. That blonde hair,” she said. “I remember her and your mother at Christmas service. Heads turned for that girl,” she told him. “That face.”
Next to Jackson a broad-shouldered man hugged his mother, his skin pocked with age and his suit newly pressed. “A parent should never have to bury his child,” he said, the phrase stolen from a B-grade movie or primetime sitcom. Jackson wanted to grab him by his winged shoulders and snap him in half. But Ivy buried her face and wept in the arms of this man Jackson had never met.
* * *
The year Jackson’s grandfather up and died was the last year his dad stuck around for, and Jackson remembered Curtis coming into the living room the morning of the funeral, telling Ivy to iron his shirt.
“I didn’t wrinkle it,” she said. “Shouldn’t be the one to iron it.” She poured the kids some juice and pulled a bag of grapes out of the fridge.
“Help me out, here,” Curtis said as Jackson and Sunday sat on the couch in their nice clothes: a button down for him with khaki pants, a navy blue dress for her.
He was eleven years old, and his grandfather was the first person he’d ever known to die. Sunday was five, too young, he figured, to know Gramps was gone.
“We’re ready to go,” she said. “You’re the one standing in your boxers five minutes before we should leave.” She shifted her weight to one hip, leaning in the doorway connecting the living room and kitchen.
Next to him Sunday shifted on the couch, her chunky legs still carrying baby weight, her dress too short and sporting a stain from the thrift store.
“Just iron the damn thing.” Curtis tossed his button-down onto the couch next to the children, and Jackson felt Sunday flinch beside him as her hand found his on the cushion.
“Jacks,” she whispered, and he said, “Shhh,” while Ivy came out of the kitchen and faced them, one hand on her hip, her head cocked to the side as if she didn’t recognize them, as if her children had appeared out of no where and she couldn’t place their names.
“The shirt,” Curtis said, nodding toward the couch. “Iron it.”
The grapes were still in her hand, and she flung them at Curtis, five or ten perfect fleshy marbles soaring between Jackson’s parents before they hit the floor and scattered. The grown-ups paused, a face off as he stared at her and she stared at him, and the children looked at the fruit rolling on the floor, tucking into corners and crevices. Sunday squeezed Jackson’s hand again, and he could hear her crying, but he just shook his head, no, not now, and squeezed back.
“I’ll iron the front but I’m not ironing the back, you shithead,” Ivy said, and Curtis turned and disappeared down the hallway. “No one’ll see the back with your jacket on,” she said just before they heard the bedroom door slam at the end of the hall.
Jackson drove the hatchback to the cemetery, not trusting his mother’s shaking hands on the wheel, and she directed him through neighborhood streets and past public parks and billboards advertising ski resorts in Vail and Breckenridge. Behind them, in the back seat, the jars of canned vegetables rattled against one another.
“You gotta toss that stuff,” he said.
She nodded, lips closed. “Talk to me about Virginia. About anything but Sunday,” she said.
For ten years Jackson had worked on a produce farm in Virginia, and he’d recently enrolled in an agriculture rogram on the other side of the mountain. He was studying eco methods and biodynamic farming, soil biota and models for CSAs. But he knew those weren’t the things Ivy was interested in hearing, not really.
“Kale got hit with cutworms this year,” he told her anyway. “We lost half the crop, but the same thing happened at Hummingbird Farms last year, and they bounced back. I figure we’ll do just the same.” He didn’t tell her about the last letter he’d gotten from Sunday, didn’t say he never wrote back.
He followed the hearse through the cemetery to the plot where they would lay his sister, and then he stood in the cold and watched a group of strangers lower her into the ground. He tried to pay attention, to remember how the Aspen branches bent under the weight of the snow, how the color of the sky wasn’t blue, not really, but a silver grey that reminded him of the tall buildings in New York Sunday described in her letters.
Everything’s crazy expensive here, Jacks, and the dance gigs are hard to find–the competition tougher than I expected. I met a man, but then he left. Come and visit. If you talk to Mom, tell her I’m kicking New York City’s ass and that when you heard from me, I sounded happy.
Back at the house, inches of snow covered the Aspens framing the yard, the squat work shed out back, the grill that was covered but left on the brick stoop off the side porch, and the mountains looming in the distance. The pop-up camper had been moved from the backyard to the side yard, the small building Sunday converted into her art studio before the truck and the garage. His sister was the only person he knew who still wrote letters, and her last note was bloated with the manic energy of recently discovering weaving and drilling patterns into drywall and plywood.
I bought a bunch of plaster panels and sawed them in half. I’ve been stenciling lace patterns and drilling out shapes that throw shadows on the floor and the ceiling, you should see it. I keep thinking about the murals on the sidewalks and the street corners, about the black and grey buildings of New York in the wintertime. All that fucking grit. I miss the subways and traffic lights and underground clubs. I miss the music scene and the street kids bumming smokes. But at least I haven’t thought of dancing in months. I took the old camper and converted it into a studio, so I finally have my own space. Mom says I’m biding time, but it feels bigger than that. Come and visit.
In the guestroom, Jackson hung up his suit and slept for most of the afternoon under a mounted deer head, and when he woke, Ivy was ironing dishtowels and placemats in the living room. He smelled chicken in the oven even though he’d been telling Ivy for years he no longer ate meat.
“You holding up okay?” Ivy asked, and he said, “Are you?” as he watched his mother take a crumpled placemat from the pile of clean laundry on the couch.
“Yes,” she said, and then, “no. Sit,” she said, so he did. Steam hissed under the metal plate as Ivy ran the iron over the fabric of a dishtowel with embroidered purple poppies. “Chicken’s in the oven. Potatoes and cauliflower, too. Probably not as good as the organic stuff you’re used to, but still.”
He sat through the meal and nudged the meat to the side of his plate. He stabbed at vegetables he imagined she drizzled with chicken stock, a cooking trick he remembered from his childhood.
He said, “Dark out already,” and they both looked to the window: the dim winter sky was stealing over though it was barely six o’clock.
After dinner, he sat and watched while Ivy did the dishes. Like the jet lag, he couldn’t remember how to shake the tension, the space that’d settled between them since she moved west, maybe before.
“I think we did good,” he said. “The music was nice.”
She turned from the sink and went to him then. Her hand on his arm felt like lead. Like tired eyes. Like barbell weights. “It’s good you were here,” she said. But he saw it there in her face. The ebb and flow of blame they shuttled back and forth even as she said the words, “Couldn’t have handled this without you.”
Jackson drove to the market for a six-pack of Fat Tire. He thought of the girl he met on the plane, the long legs and chunky baby she held in her lap, the yellow “Support our Troops” sticker on the stroller when he walked her to baggage claim. It’d been almost a year since he and his girlfriend called it quits, and even though he missed her company sometimes, the sex and the smell of her coming out of the shower in the morning, the woman on the plane was the first to make him wonder if he was lonely. He thought of those curves, of the saucer-sized brown eyes flashing when they realized they’d be on the same flight back east on Saturday. Macie with the silver wedding ring but the flirty dark eyes, with the confidence of being young and pretty but the loneliness of being a wife whose husband may not come home.
Ivy was curled on the couch with a paperback when he returned to the house. She leaned for the mug on the table, and he spotted the bottle of Jameson on the floor at her feet. Irish coffee.
“Is it okay if I look around?” he asked. “I saw the camper and thought–”
“She’d decided to be an artist.” Ivy leaned for the bottle and topped off the mug. “New York beat the hell out of her just like I said it would,” she told him, and he caught a slight slur in her words. “When she got back and got hurt, she lost her job at the ballet school. I can’t even remember the last show she did. Denver, maybe. I’m not sure.”
“She hasn’t been working?” He asked. “Not at all?”
“Almost a year since she held a job. Since the hamstring tore.”
“Jesus,” he said. “You let her get away with that?” And even as he said it, he knew it wasn’t fair.
“Let her?” Ivy said, and then, maybe, “Screw you,” or “WhatDidYouDo?” but her words became muddled things below the surface, her voice clipped short when she brought the mug to her lips as he walked away.
The camper was packed with Sunday’s art supplies, stacks of programs from her ballet shows in New York, mugs of liquid with clots of mold floating on top like icebergs, and Mason jars of colored water from her painting, the brushes still bloated and soaking in the bottom. It reminded Jackson of a dorm room, of a shoebox, of a coffin. A small desk hugged one wall, and above it she’d hung a cork board and covered it with tacked sketches and magazine clippings, lines of poetry and song lyrics on ripped pieces of napkins, newspaper articles about urban art, and small patches of lace and cut fabrics. Jackson was still holding the six-pack, and when he bent to put it on the floor between the piles of books and crates of paints and sketch pads, he noticed the sawdust. She’d rigged a sawhorse with a set of tall bar stools and laid a piece of plywood on top. The jig saw on the floor was plugged into a surge protector, and the board had been carved into a spider-webbed design, an intricate display of angles and shapes that reminded him of the kaleidoscopes they’d try to win at the country fair back when they were kids. The sawdust lay beneath the etched wood in the same perfect pattern as the stenciled design. It was beautiful, and then, as soon as he thought it, he hated the word. It was more than that. It is something that didn’t have a word. Something that was a cause and an effect at exactly the same time.
When Sunday first came back from New York a year and a half earlier, she sent him a letter, but Jackson was in the thick of it with the girlfriend, and it was the summer they lost two acres of tomato plants to bottom rot.
Back from New York. I’m going to teach ballet at a magnet school twice a week in Denver–I’m dreading the drive but glad for the work. I also started weaving, but not in an old lady lame kind of way, more like looped fabrics and weirdly colored patterns for wall hangings. I watch those wood working shows on PBS when I’m bored, and I’m obsessed with carved patterns and floral knots and leaf corners. I want to buy a miter saw, something with some real power. Any chance you’re looking for a house guest? Wouldn’t mind visiting the old stomping grounds sometime this summer.
He never sent the invite.
Jackson opened a beer and rifled through some of her papers on the desk, looking for something. A letter. A code or a reason. Instead he found the photo: Sunday in a dance studio, a leotard under a small black motorcycle jacket. Behind her there was a wall of windows looking out on a metal-colored skyline of high-rises and skyscrapers. She’d always had the bone structure of a bird, those blue-green eyes of distance. Her strawberry-blonde hair was knotted in a low bun as she looked over her shoulder. She was thin, not the thinness of dancers or athletes, the thinness of sadness, maybe, or fear.
He stashed the photo in the desk drawer. Kicked the space heater on the floor, and watched it crash into the wall as the metal front cage popped off and fell on its side, unhinged. He grabbed the beer and slammed the door behind him as he headed outside. He found the word selfish first but immediately felt guilty for it, wishing he’d written back, called more often, read between the lines of her letters. A truck in a garage out back of their mother’s home. The guilt bloomed brilliantly, swelling and stretching out before he had time to stop it.
He finished his beer, opened a second, and thought of Sunday when she was a kid, remembered all the impossible and intentional habits that annoyed him. The No-Doz and the diets, trying to bum booze off him the summer he was old enough to buy it, her endless talk of becoming a professional dancer, of going to ballet school. The year before Kyle Cole showed up, Sunday was accepted into the School of the Arts in North Carolina, and Ivy took a night job slinging beers at a bar so she could fund housing and tuition. He wondered if Sunday remembered that. Or the way Kyle Cole paid for Sunday’s dance classes when he moved them to Colorado, how he bought the blue truck for her the summer after her sixteenth birthday. When she finally headed out to New York they’d all chipped in and sent her a check for the first month’s rent. It’d been Kyle Cole’s idea, and Jackson didn’t have a lot of extra cash, but he sent his share just like he’d promised and tucked the check into an envelope with a postcard of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Jackson moved to the driveway, dusted the snow off, and climbed onto the hood of the hatchback, eyeing the house his mother and sister moved into all those years earlier.
Last night I heard Kyle and Momma fucking on the other side of my bedroom wall. This town’s a shithole, Jacks, and I’m bored out of my mind. I puked after dinner tonight. Kyle can’t cook for shit, and I’m thinking of hitchhiking back east. How could Momma have done this to me? And for a mechanic, a man in a cowboy hat. It’s embarrassing. I can’t believe I passed on the NC School of the Arts for THIS.
It was typical teenage angst, the standard self-centeredness of a kid. No one ever said, depression. Jackson killed the beer, tossed the bottle in the grass, and watched the last of the liquid spill and puddle in the snow like a small black pond.
In the morning Ivy served eggs cooked in bacon grease, so he toasted an English muffin instead and sipped his coffee, black.
In her bathrobe and her bed-head Ivy looked old, her white hair hanging to her shoulders in sheets. “Still leaving tomorrow?” she asked, and he said, “Have to. There’s work at the farm that needs to be done.”
Maybe she wanted him to stay longer, to help her empty out the hatchback or clean out the camper, to wade through memories and clear out some of that guilt they’d been hauling around those last few days. But she didn’t ask him to, so he didn’t offer. Instead he said, “Thought I’d mend the fence before I go. I noticed the back gate’s sagging.”
She nodded. “Kyle keeps his tools in the shed. Have at it.”
The shed was set back in the woods next to the free-standing garage, and next to the garage Jackson saw the truck. The blue door was rusted from water rot and a spider web of cracks in the windshield spread across the passenger side window. And before he even thought about it, he climbed in. She was small, five four or so, and his knees bumped the console as he folded himself into the seat.
Anyone who’s anyone goes to New York. Momma said I’ll get eaten alive, but I told her to shut the hell up. My ballet teacher knows an agent, and Kyle’s brother has a friend who works at a nightclub in the city. I should be able to get part-time work there.
She’d wedged a small cactus into the crevice between the floorboard and the passenger seat, and Jackson vaguely wondered if carbon monoxide affected plants. It’s something he should have known, a small detail he must have learned in the farming program.
Ivy’s wrecked with Kyle gone. She dusts bookshelves and furniture now, Jacks, no shit. She’s still got his razor in the medicine cabinet. Sometimes I ask her if she wants to come to Denver with me, so she can shop or wander around while I teach, but she never says yes.
He spent the afternoon fixing the gatepost and resetting the hinge, replacing weathered panels. His memory looped through images of Sunday: being a kid in Virginia, tearing through the woods as children, sneaking her Boone’s Mill Strawberry Wine when they were older, and watching her and Ivy head west when she was even older still. The memories became white noise as he worked himself into the kind of exhaustion only physical labor brings until, finally, he found his way into a calm and quiet numbness.
Afterwards, he called Macie. Macie with the tight curves of a back-country road, but Macie with the toddler too, with the tiny diamond on her ring finger. He wanted her voice on the phone. Their flight was the following afternoon, and he figured he’d ask if they could share a cab back to the airport. That would make the call make sense. When she answered he heard the baby in the background, not crying, not really, but making blubber sounds and noises, maybe laughing a little.
“How’s the visit going?” he asked, and she said, “Probably as good as yours is,” but then changed her mind. “God, that’s awful. That’s not fair. I’m sorry I said that, it’s just been a long week.”
She was visiting her in-laws, the first trip to Colorado since her husband left for Afghanistan and she had the baby, and on the plane she confessed she knew her mother-in-law figured Macie wasn’t good enough for her son. “Let’s swap numbers in case we need a rescue,” she said in the airport. “Like an emergency hot-line for bad visits home. I’ll take your crisis call, if you take mine.”
He sat on the bed sorting through the shoebox of papers and photos he collected from the camper, the scraps of Sunday he’d be taking with him back to Virginia. The photo in the motorcycle jacket, the black and white shot of them as kids at a swimming pool, the journal of quotes and song lyrics. The cactus from the truck sat under a streak of sunlight pooling on the windowsill.
“Are you still taking the one-o’clock tomorrow?” he asked.
“God, yes. I think Charlie may have pink eye,” she said. “He’s restless and cranky. Actually, he’s driving me crazy,” she said, but it was hard for Jackson to imagine the flushed-cheeked baby being much of a nuisance. “Want to meet at the gate?” she asked. “I’ll be the haggard mom with the agitated toddler.”
“I’m bringing back a cactus. I’ll be the one with the cactus,” he said.
“Cool,” she said, and then, “Baby, don’t put that in your mouth. Charlie, no.”
Ivy was in the doorway then, holding out a glass of brown liquid like an offering. Iced tea, maybe, or an afternoon Captain and Coke.
“Did you know cacti descended from roses? Their adaptors acclimating to the climate,” Macie said on the other end of the phone. “They’re amazing really.”
“What is that?” Ivy said. “That stuff?”
He ended the conversation quickly, told Macie to find him tomorrow, and then he was folding the papers and stuffing them back in the box as Ivy made her way into the room.
“Those her things?” Ivy said as she put the glass on the desk by the door. “What are you doing taking those things like they’re yours?”
Her face was red, he could see it as he got to his feet and made a move for her, some kind of gesture to let her know he meant well, not a hug but a reach, a hand on her arm. But she snapped away from him.
“They’re not yours,” she said. “And I don’t want them in my house.”
“I figured it’d be okay,” he tried. “I figured–”
But she cut him off, her voice digging and dropping into a quick low-pitched hiss he recognized from his childhood. “Having those things, taking them, it doesn’t change it.”
“Change what?” He said. “Say it.”
But instead she said, “Survivor’s guilt. It doesn’t make it go away. You stayed in Virginia you should’ve been here. A box full of crap from the camper doesn’t change that, Jackson,” she said, and then she paused. “Just like it doesn’t change all the things I could’ve done differently too.”
He wanted to tell her that she was wrong, that it had to get better. Or maybe not. Admit the guilt was just starting, that they’d never understand why it happened. But the words were jumbled things adrift in his mind, so instead he nudged her out of the way as he rushed down the front steps and out towards the car.
In the morning Ivy drove him to the airport, the boxes rattling in the backseat next to his duffel and the cactus.
“If you want I can post her truck on Autotrader, try to land you some money if you need it,” he offered as they skittered along the highway.
But Ivy wanted to keep it. “For when the real snow starts,” she said. “I can’t drive this damn hatchback forever.”
On the radio he dodged the news station, the weather report, and a bad song by a pop-star half his age. Eventually he turned it off and settled into the seat, the feel of the morning suddenly horrible as something weighted and distinct settled over him, a recognizable thing he couldn’t put his finger on. Sorrow, of course, but even stronger, he realized, was the shame.
“Pull over,” he said. “Right here.” But she said no, so he tugged at her hands on the steering wheel. “Stop the car. Here,” he said, “here.”
Ivy told him to stop acting crazy. There was the snow bank and the traffic heading toward the airport, but he wouldn’t back down. “Stop,” he yelled, and “pull over,” over and over again, so eventually she did.
He was out of the car then, stumbling through snow and grasping for the back door handle, pulling it open as he slid on a patch of ice, but his feet slipped out from under him, and he fell forward and cut his chin on the edge of the door. He was on his knees in the snow by the time his mother was there, and she pulled him up and tried to calm him down with words like, “Slow down, baby, hold on,” but he was tugging the boxes and bags out by then. One by one, he tossed Sunday’s things onto the side of the road. The stacks of magazines and bags of clothes, the canned food and Ziploc of blue yarn, Sunday’s Montessori yearbook. Her fishing waders from high-school.
“You’re bleeding,” she said. “Stop. Just stop.”
But the boxes were tipping over, the insides spilling in the snow. “Here,” he said, “We leave this shit here. Here,” he said as he ducked back into the car, scrambling for anything he could get his hands on. He shoved the crate of textbooks into the snow; the shoebox of concert ticket stubs, the unused sets of note cards and envelopes were flung aside. There was nothing hidden in those things that explained what she’d done.
And his mother said it wouldn’t make a difference, it wouldn’t change a thing with Sunday’s stuff outside instead of it in. She said, “Wait, Jacks, just wait,” as the cactus dropped into the snow and the pot toppled over, tossing the plant on its side.
The cars and the trucks still moved down the highway, but he couldn’t hear them. His mother sobbing muffled the noise of the road, or maybe it was him, the moans and the snow and the wind muted into a vague and quiet whoosh. And he realized his grief for Sunday would be just like that: an amplified silence, something that was not loud, not really, but was endless and astonishing. Like the sound of a jet, or a rocket, of a spacecraft taking off.