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I awake to Jasmina’s hieroglyphics. Matterhorn. Amethyst. Perhaps a wise man would paint it over, accelerate the process of forgetting. Problem being, it’s a work of art. To cover it would be a crime.
I take a shower next to a sea dragon mosaic, dry off next to a Mexican mask and a nude sketch. Fortunately, I have left enough clothing here over the months to assemble an outfit: blue jeans, a plaid shirt. I follow the sound of a British baritone to the studio, where Anna is listening to an audiobook mystery. Something in the kiln room distracts me: four oversized paintings, of a large white-haired man in a hospital bed, tubes and bandages attached to his face and arms. The British baritone goes silent. Anna stands in the passageway, next to a golden eagle, a smear of claydust on her neck.
“Oh!” I say. “Hi. I’m sorry.”
“For looking at my paintings? That’s sort of the point of painting them.”
“Sure. Is this your husband?”
“How long has it…”
“Ten years.” She puts her hands on her hips and gives the paintings a fresh study. “People get a little freaked out by these. They feel a need to rationalize them, so they ask me about catharsis. ‘Was it therapeutic?’”
She stops to brush a cobweb from Dick’s face.
“So what do you tell them?”
“Art is therapeutic. I’ve conducted a couple dozen seminars with just that in mind: cancer patients, troubled teens, inmates. But that’s not really the answer. Art is the way that I process the world. So when your husband is dying, you pick up a brush.”
I take another look at the faces of Dick and I feel better. “Thanks again for…”
“Okay, here’s the deal,” she says. “You need to stop thanking me. You’re wearing me out. But I will put you to work. I’ve got some junk in the backyard that needs to be hauled to the dump. Jasmina’s good at a lot of things, but she was never much for lifting heavy objects. But first, have some breakfast. I have a cormorant beak that needs adjusting.”
She heads for the studio but stops at the eagle to deliver a declaration. “She’s coming back, Paul. She’s out there somewhere, putting pieces together. But she will be back.”
I have inherited a family. Cecily’s lip took seven stitches. She refused medication, choosing instead to squeeze my hand whenever the pain hits a peak. Irma is asleep on my shoulder, her gums giving her snoring an extra turbulence. The scrape on my forehead is superficial, but my arms ache from my superhuman endeavors. I am staring at a poster for something called a pap smear when I am interrupted by a Latina with lips that you could use as throw pillows. She motions for me to wake Irma. I give her a shake and she immediately covers her mouth. “Hello,” says Latina. “Mrs. Patterakis?” Irma mumbles back: “Yeth?” “I’m Dr. Salazar. I wanted to give you a quick update. Your husband has suffered a fairly serious concussion, so we do want to keep him overnight, but you should be able to pick him up tomorrow morning. He’ll continue to have headaches for a couple weeks. Oh, and he has a few contusions on his buttocks, as well, so sitting might be an issue.” Irma nods. “Take care,” says the doctor, and walks away. I put a hand to my forehead. “I am so sorry.” “Why?” says Irma. “I… manhandled your husband.” “Oh by Gaw!” says Cecily. “Ah you bugging gidding be? You burr awethub! You burr lige bugging Thupahwoman!” Irma looks away, her eyes filling with tears. “It wath like God wathn’t ready for Thal to go yet, tho he thent you to thave him.”
“No! Two babies were killed on that sleeper car. I will not believe that God would be that cruel. No predetermination. No supernatural intervention. Maybe Deism, maybe the Hobbesean view. A Creator sets the world into motion like balls on a billiard table. The rest is free will and dumb luck. But I will not have God killing babies!”
I seem to be standing. My family is staring at me. What the hell am I talking about?
“And you two really need to work on your enunciation!”
Cecily’s reaction comes in the form of a waltz: two giggles, one ow! two giggles, one ow! Irma is a storm of flapping and snorting. I sit down and join them until my abdomen aches.
I’m having a hard time getting out of bed. The fake wood paneling is so familiar. I can’t stop staring at it.
“Yo, shleepyhead! You had better get down here and give me a hug.”
I scuttle around so my head hangs over the bedside. “Cheyenne? Already?”
“Yep. Drove all night. Thanksh to the inshomniac here.”
Justin sits at the fold-out table, looking proud but bleary. I perform several yoga positions in my effort to escape the overhang. I grab Cecily and hold on like we’re dangling from a parachute. “You are going to keep in touch with me, young lady.”
“Hey, you’re the one with no number. Addressh. Email. Et shetera.”
“Yeah. Okay. Soon as I get one of those.”
She smiles, as much as her stitches will allow. “I wazh thinking about the nexsht time I hear the phrase ‘train wreck.’ ‘Wow, that movie was a train wreck.’ Oh no it wazhn’t!” She kisses me on the cheek. “Thanksh for being Shuperwoman. Shweetie.”
“Anytime. Take care, honey.”
She and Justin leave the camper. I watch from the table as she heads for a payphone across the street. In the distance, I can see a set of barren mountains dusted with snow. A minute later, Justin raps on the door. “Hey! You want to ride up front with me?”
“You’re going to keep driving?”
“Sure! Don’t worry. I’ll know when to stop.”
I’m not buying it. Justin keeps rubbing his eyes, holding the wheel at arm’s length, trying to focus. As we cruise the center of Casper, I begin to think this is my last chance to get him off the road.
“Tell you what. I’ve got some spending cash. Let’s check in at a motel. I would love to get a shower.”
He casts me a sharp look, blonde curls piled up on his head like a young Jerry Lee Lewis. “Nonsense. I’m fine. I’m a Colorado kid, born with a steering wheel in my hands.
“Justin! I see how tired you are. How would your grandpa feel if the woman who saved his life perished in a fiery auto crash?”
He laughs and speaks to me through the rear-view mirror. “Don’t worry! I’ve got slumber indicators wired into my nervous system.”
I do not like the results I’m getting. I also don’t like the look of the stormclouds gathering on our northern horizon. Justin turns left onto Highway 20. We’re climbing a hill toward pine trees and snow. The last piece of civilization is a Motel 6.
“What if you took a shower with me?”
He glances in the rear-view, sea-green eyes rimmed with red.
“Yes. I actually said that. Now stop.”
Justin hits the brakes and pulls into the parking lot.
“You’re not a… Muslim, are you?”
I have recruited Molly for video duty, an all-ages club in San Jose. My bandmates are a little skittish about the young audience, but a number of pleasant circumstances swing in our favor. We’re opening for a high school band that has managed to pack the place, and the kids seem genuinely excited to see a “real” adult band.
Afterwards, we settle into the biergarten with some Finnish rockers. The guitarist compliments my snare work, which is just specific enough to seem sincere. Molly appears with my video camera and two ice-cold ales.
“Oh! You are too awesome.”
She smiles. “Yes I am. But I guess you noticed the problem with that table you saved me.”
“I believe I was directly behind Pamela. That’s all right – she’s our eye candy.”
Molly squeezes onto the bench next to a bass amp. “Speaking of disappearing, where did you go after the second song?”
“Ha! Bass pedal came completely off. I asked Pamela to stall for me, so she did the intros.”
“You don’t know the half of what goes on up there.”
I take a big swig of Bass ale. I hadn’t realized how thirsty I was. “You seem more… girly than usual.”
She swings her pony tail. “Extensions.”
“No! How beautifully artificial of you.”
“Thanks. I’m trying to become more shallow. Hanging out with celebrities…”
“One news report does not…”
“Oh stop right there. You have found your true vocation, laddie. You were eloquent, you were smart – but without seeming smarmy. It was really turning me on. And you made that guy from the DEA look like a total jackass. Where did you get this? Where did this come from?”
She jabs at my ribs. I grab her hands.
“Seriously? You want to know?”
“Ever been tried as a heretic?”
“Not counting family Thanksgiving?”
“You are automatically guilty. They know all about your blasphemies, and their job is to guarantee your reservations in hell. To take away your wife, your family, every friend you’ve ever had – to wipe you from the face of the Earth. You, meanwhile, think that you have an actual chance, so you sit there for hours as a bunch of old white men who wouldn’t know their scrotums from Saskatchewan shovel on truckload after truckload of theological hate. Even for a purely rational being, who understands the bullshit soon after escaping it, it takes years, decades to scrape all that condemnation off your skin.”
Molly just looks at me. “Jesus. I guess I never really understood what they put you through.”
“Well. Here’s the good part. Shit like that makes you strong. By comparison, the court of public opinion is a breeze. This time, I know I’m right, and I’m operating in a county where much of the adult population indulges in the evil weed.”
“Also, it’s a damn good way to distract myself from other recent events.”
The Finnish guitarist pulls out an instrument in the shape of a crescent moon and heads for the entrance.
“How cool is that?” I say. “Let’s check ‘em out.”
I hope someday I get to see Wyoming, because right now it’s nothing but a white sheet. Even with four-wheel drive and snow tires, Justin’s truck is sliding around like a drunken skier. Every few minutes, a Wyoming-plated car passes at twice our speed. I suspect some native secret until I see three of them at various spots in the fields, being attended to by tow trucks and patrol cars.
My general anxiety is not being helped by last night’s dream. Justin and I were playing the game on a flat cart, the kind you see at a hardware store. In fact, we were in a hardware store, and the checkout lady was my mother. She aimed her scanner at my rear-end, but it wouldn’t read, so she got on the P.A. “Price check, aisle three, fornicators?” A young Mexican guy ran up to my mother with the amount, Justin handed her a credit card, and we rolled toward the doors. They slid open, and we disappeared in a flash of orange flames.
Sex. The game was sex. This was the reason my mother beat me, and yelled at me, and damned me to hell.
Justin stops the truck and sets the brake. “I gotta admit, this is one hell of a drive. I’ll be right back.”
He clambers onto the hood and hacks at the windshield with a plastic scraper. It’s not a complete job, but he has managed to open up a few peepholes. A few miles later, we’re greeted by the lights of a gas station. After a restroom stop, I find Justin scanning twenty-three varieties of motor oil.
“Look,” he says. “The guy says that this storm will pass in an hour or two. I was thinking maybe we could wait it out. Go in the back, take a nap. Maybe… play the game?”
He’s such a sweet kid, and he’s working so hard to get me home. There’s got to be a way of telling him without hurting his feelings. I start by giving him a kiss on the cheek.
“I’m awfully sorry, but I just got my period.”
His face deflates. “Oh. Well. Nothing we can do.”
I can’t stand that look. I spot something across the aisle.
“Maybe there’s something else we can do.” I hand him a jar of petroleum jelly. His face turns red, which is so cute I can’t stand it.
Photo by MJV