Falling ash from an obliterated city filled the town, and as it fell it reminded me of snow.
“Do you remember,” I said to my wife, Deborah, “going to Burlington to see your sister, and walking between the Douglas Firs she planted there, and watching the deer foraging for acorns in the snow?” That had been in the hush of a tea-filled and candy-laden post-Christmas evening.
“Yes,” she said, the light from the streetlamp casting a glow on the blanket of ash like the halo of the baby Jesus in a nativity set.
I have to confess that, my snow-thirsty soul drunk with memories of Vermont blizzards, I stuck out my tongue to taste a flake.
“What are you, crazy?” she said, pulling up the hood of her lead-lined poncho. “Those are from New Brunswick!” And so they were: the morsel was hot in my mouth. It tasted like the nylon seat of a truck stop stool.
They cancelled school, and the television warned us to keep the kids from playing in it, making angels in it, building forts from it, shoveling it into mounds and jumping into it, wetting clumps of it with their spit and tossing it to and fro. But they couldn’t resist. And neither could I. After all, it was only New Brunswick. How much harm could it be?
But Deborah didn’t see it that way. Keeping her poncho wrapped tight around her shoulders even while safe in the confines of her flower-printed armchair, she chewed at her nails, watched the warnings scrolling across the bottom of the TV. “You should keep him inside, Darryl,” she said, referring to our son, Little Billy, who sat on the sofa, all dressed up but forbidden to play, staring forlornly at his mittens.
“It’s rubbish,” I said. “Let the kid have a little fun. What’s the harm?”
Deborah was glaring at me. Our marriage counselor had explicitly told us: “Don’t argue in front of Little Billy. Unified front. Healthy boundaries. Blah blah blah.”
“It just doesn’t seem right, Darryl. It’s pieces of . . . them.”
I just shrugged. I’d had family in New Brunswick, too. I grew up there. Gerald, who had been the best man at our wedding, had lived in East Anglia, the last dump to undergo routine demolition.
“Scare tactics,” I said, waving at Deborah with my hand the way you would wave away an offer of a second slice of pie. “The news media is just trying to whip up controversy. Little Billy, go play outside.”
And he did. Deborah went up to her room. I turned the television to a local sporting event. There had been an ash delay, so I switched it to a sitcom. I could see Little Billy through the venetian blinds, the little bulb of yarn on the top of his toboggan cap bobbing in the twilight. After an hour of playing, he came back inside, brushing bits of bartenders and traffic lights from his shoulders, from his hair.
“It’s funny, dad. It’s like you can actually hear them,” he told me.
And I said, “Sure, honey. Tell your mother to put on some cocoa.”
I stood on the porch with the door open, in my stocking feet and bath robe, a radiation suit of dun brown plastic wrapped around my shoulders as an afterthought. I cupped my hand to my ear. Little Billy was right. Behind the irradiated humming, I could hear the slightest murmur of laughter. I pressed my ear to the ground, where the city was slowly collecting in drifts. I caught a car horn honking, a jack hammer blaring, the throaty screams of a woman in orgasm. I exhaled sharply in surprise. As a cloud of ash billowed up, riding the currents of my breath, I heard shouts of excitement, the crashing of concrete on steel, stone against glass.
I insisted that we sleep with the windows open, but Deborah objected.
“It’s not safe, Darryl,” she said, sounding like the chorus of an old song that repeats itself one, two, twenty-five too many times.
I didn’t want to argue, so we compromised. We slept with the windows open, but the screens closed. The smells that drifted in from the storm were heavenly: the cotton candy and caramel corn of the 8th Street Carnival, the sweet acerbity of a high school gym locker room. Even my wife couldn’t resist sighing with longing when the wind changed suddenly and the entire perfume counter at Macy’s wafted gently in on the breeze. My son burst in at four in the morning, singing and dancing. He could smell donuts and cakes and chocolate éclairs, and the lizard house at the zoo. I finally fell asleep to the musty odors of the library where I’d learned to read. At dawn, we both woke choking from a gust of dog mess and garbage carried forth from the slow revolutions of the overhead fan. I closed the window.
No sooner had I fallen asleep than I was awake again. It was Saturday, so I could have spent the whole day in bed if I’d wanted to. But I couldn’t. The ashes were whispering to me. Whispering something, but I could only barely hear them. I couldn’t make out the message. I stood on the front porch in my bathrobe, squinting into the tumbling dust. I had been standing there for maybe thirty minutes when something fell from the sky—heavier than the ash, something black and solid. It hit the pillowy moon-dust collected on the lawn, making a deep impression. (The ashfall was already a few inches high). I walked over, stepping gingerly over the snow in hopes of avoiding the sounds—but I couldn’t. It sounded like a thousand aluminum cans being crushed, the wet plops of a trillion squashed tomatoes. I bent over to pick the thing up. It was jet black, about the size of my thumb, but curled in upon itself slightly like a pill bug caught in the act. It was heavy in my hand. It felt more solid than the other pieces, like a piece of charcoal. It left smudges of black dust on my fingers as I turned it around in the dim light. (Only after weeks of intimacy and the careful study that you give to something beloved would I come to realize it was a piece of calcified bone—probably the femur from the right leg).
There was something about it, something familiar, so I brought it up to my nose, and—
She was so beautiful that I could taste it. She would laugh, and it would fill me up. At me? With me? It didn’t matter. I could feel her laughter in my stomach, the way I could the beat of the bass drum from the marching band playing “Pomp and Circumstance” in the 4H pavilion that has since exploded into dust. She was there, too, wearing her red hair in pigtails. We snuck beneath the bleachers and ate grape snow cones that she got free from flirting with Buck Jones. It made me feel powerful, important. She had given his stomach flutters, had bowed those bashful blue eyes at him, but he was a fool, a sucker. She’d tricked him, had come to share with me. We picked those little white flowers that grow close to the ground in the Midwest; I kept dropping them into her hair, and she kept swatting them away like bees. I didn’t kiss her there, but we talked about France, where she would go one day, wanted to go some day, would never be able to go. We talked about Halloween; her grandmother used to paint her face like a clown and put her in old baggy clothes of her grandfather’s. Hobo clown, you know, with the five o’clock shadow made of grease paint. I would just wear a Smurf or a Wookiee from the supermarket, I told her. The plastic mask and the plastic smock you’d always end up tearing on a gate latch by the end of the night. She told me I was “such a capitalist,” and tickled my toes with a blade of crab grass while she told me about Leon Trotsky. We didn’t kiss there, as I said, but when she left, “to join her folks,” she put the palm of her hand against my cheek, the tips of her fingers trailing through the hair behind my ears. It is so much better than kissing. What you feel, then, is that your entire body is sighing. I couldn’t find her during the fireworks, so I morosely ate watermelon on a tarp with my kid brother. Later that night, I found out that she was beneath the monkey bars at the grade school, necking with Buck Jones, the snow cone salesman. One night the next week she was waiting in my front yard, beneath a huge old maple. I walked right past her without slowing and headed straight to my bedroom. I closed the shutters on the window, because I could see her there in the halo of the street lamp, her hair hanging in a mess over her face. I could hear her crying, but I put bluegrass on the phonograph and let it sing me to sleep. In the morning she was still there. I found her sleeping, cheeks wet, against the trunk of the tree. I slipped the newspaper into the pocket of my bathrobe, and I nudged her toe with my own. She smiled, blinked awake. “Hi,” she said, and I said, “hi,” too. I sat Indian-style beside her, and she told me she didn’t want to lose me, that I was her best friend. And we hugged, and she smiled and squeezed my hand before she walked away, but I spent the day in bed crying, because “just friends” is so much worse. We used to meet by that old maple. In the middle of the night, sometimes. She would leave notes there. I would leave small bouquets of dandelions tied together with string. We’d walk through the town in the dark, holding hands, sometimes talking, sometimes saying nothing at all, listening to the crickets chirping and the air conditioners humming. She’d talk about her date with Buck, and I would try hard to change the subject. We would smoke joints in the old bus shelter on Dunbar and ask each other what might happen to us when we grew up, got old, died. She was going to go to Europe and be an artist, she said, and I could come with her, but I didn’t have to. I asked her if Buck would be going along. She got sore. Buck was gone before too long, shipped off to the Eastern Front. He was celebrated as a hero by the whole town, but she lost interest even before he left. She said she didn’t want to go steady with someone who was going to put so many bullet holes into gorgeous Prague. Later, he was sliced in half by a laser mine in Bucharest, and they had a parade in his honor, served grape snow cones in his memory. We sat beneath the 4H bleachers and drank from a hip flask full of lukewarm Jim Beam she’d stolen from her father’s desk. For some reason we started laughing and rolling in the grass, and I pulled up her shirt (just a little) and my first kiss was on her belly. My second was on her earlobe. My third (our first) was on the lips. We held our palms together, fingers interlocked. We kissed until we were thirsty, drank more whiskey, and then kissed some more. The next week, my parents took a weeklong trip to the Dardanelles. She slept over. On the second day the air conditioner broke, and we couldn’t get it fixed. That night we made love in the dark beneath the tree, and the moment we finished, hail began to fall. I covered her with my naked body until the storm stopped. That night, watching All in the Family on the television set and feeding each other strawberry ice cream from a five gallon tub, I asked her if I was her first. “Did you and Buck…” but I couldn’t finish the question. “Well,” she said, “not really.” I exhaled in relief. “That is, just the once.” I lost it. I threw the five gallons of ice cream at the television, threw her clothes at her, and told her I never wanted to see her again. When she began pounding on my front door, screaming and crying, I pretended to be a neighbor and called the police. They gave her a ride home. I didn’t see her for the rest of the summer. I left for college in the fall. The last time I saw her was the summer between my sophomore and junior years. I had a job bagging at Wilde’s Grocery, and one day while putting one paper bag inside of another to keep it from bursting with Mrs. Miller’s cans of cream corn, I saw her at the other end of the store, coming out of the last aisle, Toiletries and Pharmacy. Her hair was cut very short, and she was holding hands with some guy with big muscles in a denim jacket. We met eyes. For a moment. She quickened her pace, pulled the guy along. Soon after, my parents moved out of New Brunswick. I never went back. Carol. Yes, that was her name.
“Honey? Honey!” My wife tugged at the sleeve of my shirt. I was standing bolt upright in the middle of the yard. The air was bright and the sun was hot. It must have been well after midday.
“Holy shit,” I murmured.
She smacked my cheek lightly. “Honey, language,” she chided, and I could feel the intervening years piling up on my shoulders, and they were suddenly so very heavy. I collapsed on the lawn.
She led me to the bedroom, and I must have slept for days. But fitfully. Waking up and weeping, dreaming of her and the years that had erased her. Business school in New England, meeting Deborah at a friend’s dinner party and marrying her within a year. The kid. Soccer games. Dentist appointments. Tivoing Two and a Half Men. But none of it seemed real. They were not like memories, but like the images you have in your head when reading a book. Foggy, imprecise. For a moment, you might have the full image of a distinct face, but it would dissolve upon further examination, if you tried, for example, to isolate the nose, the eyes, the chin.
When I finally woke up, Deborah brought me a bowl of oatmeal. I was sitting up in bed for the first time in days, finally able to speak. She was smiling at me, and I smiled back. But she felt far away, farther away from me than a girl who I was never able to touch even when she was writhing on top of me.
“Well,” she said. “Do you believe me, now?”
But I didn’t know what she meant. I tried my best to articulate this to her with a series of grunts, frowns, and jerks of the head.
“The ashes. I told you something was wrong with them.”
I ignored her. It wasn’t something that was open for discussion. “Deborah,” I said, my voice hoarse, “have you ever thought of being with someone else?”
She sighed. So heavily. “Well, Darryl, I don’t know what you want me to say to a question like that.”
“Thoughts, Deborah. I’m only talking about thoughts.”
She sat on the bed beside me. “Well, of course. Yes. I suppose.”
I had no right, but somehow, it saddened me. “Jesus,” I said.
“Dammit, Darryl, language. You asked me. You asked me.”
“Have you ever loved anyone else?”
“No, I haven’t,” she said.
“Not even before?”
“Darling, I don’t know what you’re fishing for. But no. You are the love of my life,” she said. And I could tell that she meant it, that it was true. But it was just as true as if she had said, “We are having salmon for dinner,” and it had just as much passion. She was folding a fitted sheet, and having trouble. She stopped. “What about you?”
“Yes,” I said. “I did.”
She began tidying the bedroom uselessly. Straightening items that were already straight, brushing dust from spotless surfaces.
I set the oatmeal on the end table, and I went to her. I pulled her to me. “Let’s make love,” I said.
She laughed. “We’ll see about that when you have the strength to stand.”
She took the bowl (I wasn’t done with it yet) and carried it away toward the door.
“Deborah,” I said, but she was already heading down the stairs. “I love you, too.”
That night, to make sure I did, I snuck out into the yard and started digging furiously through the ashes. I took whole handfuls to my face and breathed in their vapor. There has to be something, I said to myself, something to make me feel for Deborah the way I’d felt those years ago. Where is that Christmas I could smell when the snow first started falling? Somehow, miraculously, I found it. Somewhere in a handful of fluff that had gathered on the hedges, the ashes were emitting the sound of jingle bells. I sniffed, and the memories filled my body like electrical current:
Douglas firs—the needles tickling at my nose, the astringent smell of the pine, Christmas in Vermont.
And then, from another grain of ash, her favorite perfume—perhaps from an obliterated boutique on the old Arcade.
Another: Red onions, pickled in vinegar.
And another: stewed tomatoes.
I could feel Deborah, younger, slighter, dancing beside me as I chopped carrots for a salad in the kitchen of our first home, a tiny basement apartment always crawling with roaches.
As I breathed in again to find the smell of linens fresh from the dryer, I sneezed, scattering the ashes into a cloud. My heart fluttered weakly, a half effort. It wasn’t enough. I was starving to death. I was thirsty. I wanted Carol.
“Darryl,” I heard someone calling softly across the darkness. For a moment, my heart leapt. But it quickly settled down again, crushed with disappointment. It was only Deborah. She stood in a rectangle of light at the front door of the house. “Darryl, are you out there?”
I tried to suck in the tears and swallow the sobs, but when I said, “In a minute,” the words were strained and broken, heavy with crying.
“Come upstairs, dear,” she said. I winced. Her voice was husky and inviting, but the word “dear” made her sound like an old woman. And she was. Her hair was dry and brittle and gray; she cut it in that short, unappealing style that young boys and aging mothers have in common. Her skin was stretched and sagging, her body withered and bony and cold.
I followed her up the stairs, clicking off any lights that were still on as I went up, so that she would not see my face, which was wet with tears and blackened by soot. I hadn’t remembered having it with me, but I was clutching the piece of Carol in my closed fist; it was clammy with sweat. Hers, or mine?
In the bedroom, I put her into the drawer of my bedside table, which I left ajar. I didn’t want her to watch—it felt sordid and wrong. But I wanted to be able to see her. I wanted to smell her. To taste her remnants on my tongue.
Deborah pulled me towards her by the love handles, and I slipped my shirt off over my head. It was dark. As we had gotten older, we began making love only in the dark. It made it easier to close your eyes and picture someone else, and also easier to deny that the other was doing the same thing. I didn’t think that Deborah is ugly. In fact, there were still certain moments when I would find her genuinely beautiful: when she would turn her head, or I would see her talking on the phone to someone else, laughing suddenly and unexpectedly at some unheard joke. It would surprise me, like that young woman I fell in love with was still there. Not gone, just hidden beneath the folds of skin, the stretch marks and scars.
As we made love I closed my eyes, and I pictured Carol on the blanket beneath me, felt her young flesh against me as I caressed my wife. And although I was thinking “Carol, my God, Carol,” and sniffing desperately to catch a hint of her sweat from the piece of carbonized flesh smoldering in the drawer, I was careful to whisper nothing but “Deborah, I love you, Deborah.”
When we fell asleep, she was leaning against me, her arms around my waist. This was something very rare, something we had almost completely stopped doing, except for maybe in the coldest part of winter during the rolling blackouts, when even multiple blankets and wool socks wouldn’t suffice to keep us warm, when only the clammy embrace of human flesh could keep us from freezing. It felt like years since we had slept together, as opposed to merely sleeping in the same place, backs turned, snug in our own blankets, more concerned with comfort than with intimacy. She smiled and purred against me, and kissed my neck, and said my name. By the time she began to snore, I was already halfway into a dream about Carol.
For a few weeks, we kept it up. We were like newlyweds. At night I would come home from work and make love to my wife with Carol tucked under the corner of the mattress, or as I got bolder, under my pillow, and soon tucked into my left sock. (I always leave them on during love making anyway, something Deborah would tease me about in our first days together, and Carol, too). Once I figured that trick out, the sex was amazing. I could feel Carol’s young body writhing against me, not only where her charcoal remains touched me, but everywhere, her legs interlocked tightly behind my back, her fingers ruffling my hair, her chin digging into my shoulder. My perfunctory three minutes with Deborah grew longer and longer, until she would eventually beg me to stop, kissing my neck in gratitude and exhaustion, licking the sweat from my shoulders.
I could see a definite change coming over Deborah as our sex life improved. She made me breakfast every morning. Pancakes, French toast, Frittata. Elaborate feasts. A far cry from the cold cereal and canned grapefruit juice to which I was accustomed. She would whistle cheerily while whisking eggs or frying sausage, smiling coyly over her shoulder toward where I sat idly reading the paper, Carol tucked into the breast pocket of my shirt. When I came home, we would share glasses of wine, sit on the deck and talk like we had just after we were married. The only difference was that then, we had discussed our hopes and dreams: what houses we would buy, what vacations we would take, what children we would have. Now, we discussed what remodeling projects we might undertake, where Little Billy might go to college, what hobbies we might take up when we retired. She was even beginning to look younger. Her face was often, dare I say it, glowing. And I couldn’t deny it: it was nice sitting with her like that, talking to her.
But it couldn’t last. One night a few weeks later, we were making love, and unable to control myself at the moment of orgasm I’d yelled out her name. Her name. Carol’s.
“What did you say to me?”
I rolled off of her, bracing myself. I was panting for breath. I could feel my heartbeat in my ankle, where the pressure from Carol’s body was pushing against me. It felt, for a few brilliant seconds, as if it were her heartbeat. And then, I remembered myself. Deborah. The ultimate faux pas.
“What did you just say to me, Darryl?”
“I said, what, well…” was all I could muster, and a few grunts besides.
“You said another woman’s name.”
“This is ridiculous, Deborah. We have enough problems without you imagining new ones for us to have.” And I did my best impression of genuine indignation, stomping into the bathroom, nude except for my socks. Behind the safety of the locked door I caressed Carol gingerly with my fingers. I could hear her giggling, saying “that tickles” the way she used to as I would trace the edges of her elbows with fronds of crab grass. My heartbeat slowed. I went back to bed. My argument with Deborah was a retread of every argument we’d had in our lives, a redundant eventuality. I didn’t have the energy to repeat it. But to this day, something nags at me about that night, something that could have made all the difference, given all that would soon transpire. Did I remember to hide the soot-stained sock under the bed, where I’d been keeping all evidence of my quasi-adulterous trysts? Or, fool that I am, did I leave the smoking gun lying there on the cold white tile?
The next night I stayed late at the office. It was legitimate enough, as excuses go. I sat there, alone at my desk, slowly sipping at a glass of bourbon and rubbing Carol between my thumb and forefinger, a slow and intoxicating foreplay that lasted until the security guard came by on his second round.
The lights were still on at the house, even though it was well after eleven, and Deborah was awake, sitting in the pink armchair by the television. She had a glass of ice water in her hand and a calm expression on her face that I knew from 26 years of marriage could only mean that she was upset with me.
“Deborah,” I said, “what’s wrong honey? Has something happened? Is Little Billy–”
“Little Billy is fine, Darryl,” she said. And then the inevitable: “Where have you been?”
“Drinks with a client. Nothing major. Didn’t I tell you?”
Her eyes narrowed. She took a sip so small, and pursed her lips in such a way, that I wondered if her water might not actually be gin. “No. You didn’t. But that shouldn’t surprise me”
I was still standing up, for some reason. I felt like I needed her permission before I could sit. “Sweetie, I don’t know what’s going on here. But I don’t appreciate you talking to me in this tone. Why start up? Things have been so nice lately, I thought.”
She took another sip of the water and/or gin, rolling it around in her mouth, almost as if she were chewing it. “So did I, dear,” she said, pronouncing the word “dear” like it was a swear word.
“Look, honey, let’s just get to bed. I’m sorry I didn’t call, but—“
I tried my best to feign sincerity, but now she was looking down at my feet. At my ankle? She took a long, long sip from her glass. Either it wasn’t gin after all, or she was steeling herself for something big.
“What’s that in your sock?”
I looked down, as if I hadn’t thought about it, as if I were surprised. And then I bent down and took Carol out as if she were some foreign object, something I had never seen before. I even sniffed her, as if I were examining, studying. I had to bite my tongue (so hard that it bled) to keep from sighing with pleasure at this brief whiff of her.
“Huh. Must be a piece of something that got in my shoe in the street. You know, I felt something, but figured it was just a stone,” I tossed it up and down in my hand a few times, trying to look casual. But she either caught my wince, or my voice broke, because she told me to bring it to her.
“I can just throw it out, honey—”
“You bring it to me.” Her voice was hard. She was clenching her teeth now.
So I brought it over. She took it. She tilted her head up so she could examine it through the lower half of her bifocals. She brought it to her nose experimentally, gave it a quick sniff. Once she had, her eyes cut to me, barely visible beneath the furrow of her brow. Then, she poked it sharply with her finger. It gasped out loud, a sudden, feminine shriek, and then it began to giggle. I leapt forward with my hand outstretched.
“Don’t!” I caught myself. I put my hand in my pocket, and rocked back on my heels, a caricature of casualness. But it was too late.
“Don’t what, Darryl?”
This was it. As absurd as it would have sounded all those months ago, before the ashes began to fall, it was obvious to her what was happening. “Don’t hurt her.”
She shook her head, threw Carol at me. My heart leapt, and I caught her just in time. I held her to my ear protectively. She was crying now. I kissed her gently.
She reached back behind the chair with both hands. She drew out a white laundry basket and dumped its contents onto the floor. The smoking gun. More than a dozen dirty socks, the ones I’d made love to her in. They were turned inside out. Each one was stained black with charcoal. “I want you out of this house.”
I didn’t really know what to say. Nothing would have done any good. So, I put Carol back in my sock and walked out the door.
I drove for a long time before I realized where I was going. It was almost as if she were guiding me, impelling me to go faster or slower, left or right. But after half an hour of driving, and stepping out of the car at one point to remove an orange saw horse from an abandoned military road block, I was there. New Brunswick. Or what had been New Brunswick. They really blew the place to kingdom come. When I had pictured it (and I’ll admit that I’d tried very hard not to picture it) I had imagined the odd skeleton of a car, the occasional crumpled shell of a tin can, an unidentifiable bit of masonry here and there. But there was none of this. It was blank. A blank sheet of gray, like a vast and complex drawing had been erased, leaving only the dirty smudges of the eraser. Even the merest outlines of the city, the curbs and the streets and the sidewalks, were gone. I had thought it would be easy enough to find my way through familiar landmarks: there’s a knot of tangled steel from the old mill; and there, a deep depression, like an impact crater, where the hollowed out bowl of the high school football stadium once stood. But there was nothing.
So I drove straight—the surface was impossibly smooth, no gravel for the tires to kick, no ruts in which to get stuck—and when I felt like I had reached my destination, I stopped the Land Rover and stepped outside. It was like another planet. Silent. Nothing lived here. The night sky impossibly black. There was not even a breeze. I took Carol from the spot in my sock; I cradled her. Then I disrobed, and I lay down on the bare earth, holding Carol gently between thumb and forefinger. Even though she was dead and burnt, I could feel her supple flesh against my skin. So I began kissing her, caressing her. It was almost like making love.
I woke up in the dark, unsure where I was, something that had happened to me before, in my own bed. I would wake up, panting, hear beating from some nightmare abruptly ended, some terrible vision that was all the more frightening for the fact that I couldn’t recall it, couldn’t make form from those shadows. At home, it would only take a moment to see the ceiling fan, to feel the quilt Deborah’s mother had sewn us for our wedding, rough and damp from sweat against my skin. It wouldn’t take long to see the floral printed wallpaper, which I hated, but which told me that I was home, that I was safe, that breathing next to me was the only person who could make me feel those things. Looking around, blackness all around me in every direction, the fear would not abate. I couldn’t slow my heart in its beating. There was no reassurance. Only nothingness.
And Carol. I could feel her in my hand. I held her up to my nose, smelled the cut grass, the dew of her sweat, except that the old euphoria was gone. I didn’t feel young. I felt my age. And for the first time, I felt hers. For the first time, I realized that Carol was gone. Dead yes, but even if she hadn’t been blown to bits in New Brunswick, dissolved in an instant and left to scatter, she would still have been an old woman, not much different than Deborah. I had not lost her when she’d died: I had already lost her ages ago to youth, fickleness, stupidity. And time.
I placed Carol gently on the eraser dust gray of the ground. I tried to dig a small depression, but the ground was unaccountably hard, dense and immovable, solid like a plank of wood. So I simply left her there, made a cross on my chest and drove back home, hoping she would rest in peace.
Deborah and I are okay, believe it or not. It isn’t easy, but after 26 years of marriage, you can forgive almost anything. Or, you don’t need to. You can accept that, during an entire lifetime together, you are bound to hurt one another sooner or later. It’s mathematics. Besides, “Ash Psychosis” had been diagnosed by a leading researcher from The State University of Patagonia; I’d agreed to group therapy. I didn’t think I needed it, but it appeased Deborah. And they provided snacks. They finally cleaned up the snow from New Brunswick. The president eventually granted the regional magistrate’s request for emergency assistance. The War Department’s fleet of solar-powered, four-wheel drive vacuum units had the whole town glistening, like new, in time for Christmas Eve. Something about the blank streets, the brittle brown grass of the lawns, was utterly devoid of magic. It doesn’t snow here these days. The ashes would have been the closest I’d had to a white Christmas since a certain year that Deborah and I spent in Vermont.
“It just doesn’t look right,” Deborah says to me on Christmas morning, as we look out at the bare trees in the backyard that had been frosted with ashes the week before.
We have only just begun speaking again. We had to, to figure out what to do about presents for Little Billy. So far, our conversation has been all logistics. We need milk. Did I get a call from Mr. So and So? The garage needs cleaning. But this, this is the first thing she has said to me since before the fight that feels like something she is thinking, something she is feeling, and not an item that needs to be crossed off a to-do list.
“I miss it, somehow, after all that. As horrible as it is. It was beautiful, in a way.”
We start to get ashes again before Easter, this time, a major metropolitan area. The city where I went to college, in fact. But it’s not the same. As the kids play in it, and the mailman trudges through it in his radiation suit, I sit at the kitchen table with Deborah and discuss practicalities over cups of re-caffeinated, imitation coffee-flavored beverage. Looking out the window at the falling snow, I turn to her, and I tell her I love her. She smiles, tells me she loves me, too. I take her hand. The skin is loose, pulling away from the bones, her palms hard and calloused. I can remember holding this hand when we were both young, when it was paler, smoother, less freckled. And for a moment, it makes me sad to think how much we have lost.
And then I kiss her hand. Her skin smells sweet, as sweet as it ever did. I don’t even need to close my eyes to see her as she was then, all those years ago. I don’t need to reach into my memory to see that smile as bright as a nuclear flash: it is there, on her face. She is here.
Photo By: Simon