Other than the dust, everything is as Nick left it, even that shot he took of Ahab and me in the backyard, the day before The Trip. Ahab's tongue is wagging, and it looks like he's smiling. That photo hangs from the cord, totally dry, of course. It's curled stiff, in fact. I might do something with it. Flatten it out and put it in a frame, maybe.
I sit on the attic floor and open the cardboard box Arthur gave me after the memorial service. I undo the twist tie on the plastic bag insideâa twist tie, like on a loaf of bread!âand sink my hand right in. And I pull out a fistful of Nick. He's whitish gray and chunky now, more like gravel than dust.
Then I move on to the singed cube. Part of me expects the oven present to be a joke. Like a jack-in-the-box. Or a can of peanut brittle that isn't peanut brittle at all, but a fake snake, all coiled up, that springs and wriggles like crazy when you open it.
I bang the cube on the floor a couple of times to crack open the lid, because it melted shut in the fire. Finally the lid breaks off. And inside is an authentic potbellied ceramic Polly Pinch LOVE canister, in perfect condition, which is uncanny, really, when you think about it. When you consider that half of Wippamunk's volunteer fire squad tromped through my kitchen that day. When you consider all that wild black smoke rolling from the oven.
Is this gift intentionally ironic, I wonder? Was Nick trying to say something smart-ass about how I never cook? Maybe. Or maybe he had no idea it was a Polly Pinch accessory. Maybe he thought I could sweep my eraser pellets into it. Maybe he just saw it in a shop somewhere and said, “Hey, Zell can keep her coffee fresh in this thing.” Maybe he simply thought I'd like it.
At first I think the LOVE canister is it, but I realize there's something
So I pry off the big cork lid.
I look inside and find a new heart. A new model heart, to replace the old one he gave me for our high school graduation.
I sit there at the top of the attic steps for some time, my feet planted between the box of ashes and the LOVE canister, and I hold the heart, which amazingly still smells like new plastic. I remember our graduation day, how Nick dragged me under the bleachers. How I kissed him as the sun streamed through the wood. He said I was the only woman in the world who sheds tears of joy over a model heart.
This new model is dissectible, so I remove the atrium walls and the front heart wall to check out the inside. I inspect the ventricles, the arteries, the upper section of the esophagus, the upper bronchi. I hold a valve up to my eye and peer through it, down the steps, and it's like looking through a red-ringed lens.
Smiling, I blink the tears away, tuck the heart under my chin, and hug my knees. The pulse in my neck throbs against the plastic, and it's as if I could absorb this new heart, make Nick's gift a living, beating part of me.
Then I realize, it always has been. It always will be.
IN JUNE, I head to Okemo for a week or two; there are things there that I need do. But I don't tell Gail and Terry about these things. I just ask them if I can visit for a while. And of course they say yes.
The drive to Vermont is positively verdant. I pull up the driveway, and Terry comes to the door. A pink boa circles his neck.
“Playing Princesses?” I ask.
Tasha wobbles behind him in too-big high-heels. “Auntie Zell! Abe-abb?”
“Welcome,” says Terry, waving me inside. “We're so glad you decided to come up.”
“Did Gail hire a college student?” I ask. “To finish the bathroom mural?”
“A college student?” Terry says. “No.”
“Did she paint over it?”
He laughs his theatrically British “What the hell” laugh. “No, no, of course not. The mural's waiting for you, whenever you're ready.”
I breeze past my parents, who hunch over a chessboard in the living room. My mother half stands. “Rose-Ellen, you're here. Can I pour you some wine?”
“I'm all set, Mom,” I say. “I just need to do this.”
In the bathroom, I hold the envelope, grainy with dust and brittle with age. I pinch the edge of the photograph and slide it out. Mountains in the first stages of thaw, boulders and evergreens shimmering. We stand in a row. Our faces are sunburned and exhilarated. Terry, head to toe in purple, wraps his arm around the much-taller Gail, who poses with angled elbows and a lowered chin, as if she's a model on a photo shoot. I'm next to Gail, and Nick holds me close. He wears the same A-shaped, pom-pommed ski hat he's worn since eighth grade, the one that's stretched over the tip of his snowshoes in my closet.
The morning of the photograph, when we had snowshoed about three-quarters up Okemo, Terry announced that he had to drain the main vein. He asked Gail to lend him some assistance, because he didn't want to injure his back hefting heavy objects.
“Ha, ha,” Gail said. She unzipped her pocket and reapplied lip balm.
“Cheerio,” Nick called after Terry, who entered a thicket of spruces.
Seconds later Terry hollered for us, so we followed his prints, past his still-steaming yellow hole. We found him standing in a small clearing that looked out over peaks to the north. Killington, probably, and beyond it, Mount Ellen and Mount Abraham. To the east towered Ascutney.
Terry had discovered a hidden vista. No sign pointed to it; no tracks led to it. We enjoyed our own private viewing of blue-gray peaks and puffy clouds.
Nick fished around in his camera bag. “This deserves to be recorded for prosperity.”
Terry chuckled. “Posterity, you dim-witted colonist.” He slurped water from his bottle.
“Posterity,” Nick said. “Whatever. Do you mind hanging out here for a second while I get the shot set up?”
“Hell, no,” Gail said. She held her cell phone out, and when she got a bar she called our parents. They put Tasha on, and Gail cooed, “Love you, doodle-bums. Be a good baay-beee.”
We stayed there the whole morningâtalking, laughing, snacking on raisins and granola bars. We made chairs out of snow.
After an hour, Nick rubbed a stick of sunscreen all over his face and said, “Trivia time: What does âOkemo' mean in Abenaki?”
“Stupid colonist?” Terry said. He rested his head on Gail's lap.
“Nope,” Nick said. “Gail? Guesses?”
Gail rolled her eyes. “Zell, got'ny trail mix?”
Nick threw an arm around me, pecked my forehead, and sighed. “âOkemo' means âAll Come Home.'”
REAL TIME. REAL SPACE. On the bathroom wall, against the mountains, are four empty spots where Terry, Gail, Nick, and I, as happy and exhausted as sled dogs, will finally appear.
“Hi,” I whisper. My hand fills the white space for Nick's face. My forehead touches the spot where his foreheadâdamp, wrinkled from squintingâbelongs.
I hear my sister clear her throat. She pokes her head in and talks softly. “Before you get started, and before I forget, I just wanted to show you something. Remember that hot priest in the Muffinry?”
“Sweet Father Chet.” She slides into the bathroom. “Remember he whispered something sexy to you in French? And I wrote it down and said I would translate it on Babel Fish? Well, I finally got around to it, and here's what I came up with.” She shows me the wrinkled, coffee-stained napkin.
Underneath the phonetically spelled French words is Gail's translationâa statement I remember from one of Nick's e-mails, a statement that frustrated him, because Father Chet never offered a concrete explanation:
WE ARE ALL CONNECTED.
I PAINT ALL DAY. The next morningâafter my parents leave to take in the annual polo tournamentâI work for another two hours or so. Until the mural is complete.
That's it. I feel no sense of ceremony, not even a real sense of accomplishment. The mural was something that needed doingâan unfinished project. And I finished it, and . . . that's it.
Nick looks just as he does in the photograph: sweaty, eager. Except he's life-size, and shinier, and somehow seems touchable.
After I wash up, I summon Gail and Terry, who hold hands and observe my art with wistful expressions on their faces. Tasha totters in and points. “Uncle Nick?”
Terry crouches and tucks an unruly curl behind her little ear. “That's right, love,” he says. “Uncle Nick.”
I LACE UP MY HIKING BOOKS. I zip Ahab's fairy charm into the pocket of my shorts. And in the passenger seat of my car, I buckle the seat belt over the LOVE canister.
It's the best kind of summer day in Vermont: cloudless and dazzling and almost warm, and I head toward Mount Holly, where you can access that old overgrown trail that goes practically straight up the back of Okemo. Okemo's butt crack, Nick used to say. The same overgrown trail we snowshoed that winter day, he and Gail and Terry and I.
But this time I hike alone, the LOVE canister tucked under one arm. Its contents are surprisingly heavy.
It's a beautiful hike. Everything around and underneath meâtrees, leaves, dirtâis damp, warm/cold, and becoming new. There is practically no breeze whatsoeverâthe air seems so still. And I meet no other people as I climb, which is fine with me.
Huffing and puffing, I hike straight up. No stopping. Briefly I search for the hidden vista Terry discovered on our winter hike, but I don't find it.
At the summit I expect to see some other hikers, but it seems I've got the place to myself. I approach the rickety, defunct fire tower, where a NO TRESPASSING sign is chained across the first step. But I say, “No trespassing? Whatev” (I actually say this aloud), and vault right over the chain.
Up, up, up the tower. Twisting, winding up. The higher I get, the more the tower sways and groans, and I think maybe I shouldn't have trespassed. But I keep going: five stories up.
When I reach the top, I catch my breath a moment and wish I'd carried some water with me. I suck fresh mountain air through my nose to clear it of the residual smell of paint and closed-up bathroom.
I fish in my pocket for the busted charm, pull it out, and finger it. Its fairy wings and one remaining foot flash in the sunlight. I cock back my arm and I'm about to fling the charm into the woodsâbut I hear something. An animal? A person? It approaches the tower. Twigs snap, leaves crunch. I search the ground far below, but can't detect the source of the noises.
Ahab? I wonder, and my chest leaps at the thought. I imagine him appearing at the edge of the trees, sniffing the air. In my fantasy, Ahab's collar is gone, porcupine needles protrude from his side, and his eye-patch eye is swollen shut. He's suffered, but he's survived, and he's as self-possessed as an old sea captain. That's his greyhound style. I imagine climbing all the way down the tower steps to bury my nose in his neck, where the fur smells like spring; like dried sylvan blood; like indelible, unknowable adventure.
“Yarr!” I whisper, watching the trees where the twigs and leaves continue to crunch. “A noggin o' rum's what I need!”
Finally the creature appearsâa fox. It's still for a moment, just long enough for me to admire its daintiness. Its white cheeks and chest blaze in the bright sun. It continues past the tower, unaware of my presence.
I remember Terry's prediction that Ahab simply “went off on a toot” and is sure to return, and Ingrid's classmate's uncle, whose dog walked to Kentucky.
I pocket the charmâI'll hang on to it for a bit more. Just a little while longer. What was it that Nick wrote?
There is disappointment, but there is also hope.
Something like that.
I give the LOVE canister a big old two-handed shake. I don't say anything, and I don't even really
anything. No prayer, no song, no reflective good-bye pause. I simply whip the LOVE lid off and, as if splashing a bucket of water on a soapy car, I toss Nick's ashes to the blue skyâtry to coat the sun, the tips of the pines, the peaks of the mountains, with him. He is in this spot forever now, and yet, at the same time, gone.
Neither here nor there.
Tears rise, and somehow a laugh, too. That old pinprick sensation plucks my chest. But it's not one tiny, distant puncture; it's a thousand of them, making me feel like I'm contained and bursting, hot and cold, happy and sad, all at once.
June 29, 2008
Thank you for my Polly Pinch canister and my new heart. It's a beautiful heart. A wonderful replacement.
Speaking of hearts, I have finally discovered what is wrong with mine.
Since you died, my cardiologist's office left about a million messages on my answering machine. I never called back. I didn't want to know what was wrong with me. I didn't care. Or maybe I was afraid
was wrong with me. I wanted my heart to be fubar, and I wanted it to kill me, so that I would be reunited with you in heaven. Yeah. That's how pathetic I've felt.
Then just a few days ago, after I got home from Vermont, my doorbell rang. I figured it was Ingrid or Garrett or Russ or Gail. But it was Dr. Fung, with her silky chin-length hair and dewy black eyes.
She told me one of her office assistants somehow knows Pastor Sheila. Via that social chain, Dr. Fung learned that you died on a mission trip in New Orleans, and that ever since, I've been hopelessly depressed. And so, when it became apparent that I would never answer the phone, Dr. Fung took it upon herself to call on me personally.
I thought she was going to tell me that I suffered broken heart syndrome. That's a real thing, you know. Something about the stress hormones released when you get shocking newsâthe stress hormones stay in your system indefinitely, straining the heart. But then I remembered that I've had my weird heart thing since
you died, so it couldn't be broken heart syndrome.
“How many cups of coffee do you drink a day?” asked Dr. Fung.
“Three. Sometimes more.”
“Like how much more?”
“Like three,” I said. “Or seven or eight.”
“Drink less coffee, Rose-Ellen,” Dr. Fung said. She smiled.
Drink less g.d. coffee.
“That's it?” I said.
“You're saying jack-crap is wrong with my heart?”
“Yes. I believe you're just overcaffeinated. Some people are extremely sensitive, so knock off the caffeine, and we'll see what happens.”
So, that's the story of my heart. How do you like that one? All that drama, all that worry, for nothing. I could have come on The Trip with you after all.
Imagine if I did. Imagine how different our lives would be.
Maybe that morning you wouldn't have agreed to tour the construction site of the big new church they were building on the outskirts of town. Maybe EJ and you and me, the three of us, would have taken a morning to ourselves, gone to Charlene's cafÃ© to hang out and discuss things. The people, the projects, the work we did in New Orleans, and the work that still must be done.
Or, imagine if EJ wasn't so courteous. What if
walked first, directly behind the construction manager, instead of letting you go first? Or, imagine if I toured the site with you, and
went first. Imagine if that scaffolding collapsed on
Imagine if that beam landed on me. Crushed
hard hat, and underneath it,
I know all about the spine, how it's constructed. Winged vertebrae protect the spinal column, and spongy disks between the vertebrae allow the spine to flex. Inside the sheath hum all those nerves. Thousands and thousands of nerves, fine as hair, alive with electricity, vibrating their messages, their commands.
When were you going to give me the presents? When you got back from The Trip? For Christmas? Were you going to call me from the road that afternoon, and tell me to open the oven?
As you always used to say, these questions are “neither here nor there.” They are inconsequential. With time, I suspect, they will simply blow away.
Anyway, here's another e-mail I'd like you to see. I got it this morning. I think it'll make you happy. It's pasted below.
I don't know when I'll e-mail you again. This might be the last one for a while. But I still love you.
I'll always love you.
Dear Ms. Roy,
You might remember me: Hamill Harding from San Diego. I was glad to hear, through Polly Pinch's assistant, Spike Miller, that the little girl made it through her horrible ordeal okay. I sure am sorry about that. If I had known about her peanut allergy, I would never have allowed her to eat a Hidden Cranberry Spice-eez.
I've been thinking a lot about what Spike told me when I was backstage, getting ready. The little girl told him that you planned on donating the prize money to a New Orleans charity, if you won.
That you were inspired by the e-mails your husband wrote while he was on a mission trip.
I did some research and found a couple articles online from this little newspaper, The Wippamunker, where, I gather, your husband used to work. I saw an archived article about how he died during the mission, and another more recent article about a public tribute his friends put together, displaying his photographs. And how that chain-saw artist donated a statue of him. My wife and I were very touched by the way your community came together, and by the impact one man seemed to have on so many people.
I found a link for making online donations to the interfaith group your husband traveled with. I understand that all donations help the people of New Orleans rebuild their cityâtheir churches, schools, and librariesâand in turn, their lives, in the wake of the hurricane. My wife and I decided to donate half of the prize money I won in the Warm the Soul contest to the interfaith group. Mind you, money doesn't solve all the world's problems. But in this case, I think, it'll go a long way.