Beyond the detours
CN&R’s annual Christmastime fiction
The mountains rising from the valley change things abruptly, pine-clad canyons cut through with scrub brush and manzanita, black rock faces jutting out as erect as standing stones, shielding ravines, gullies and caves. A labyrinth for lizards, rattlers, skunk and quail. Deer, bear, mountain lions. Wild turkeys. A place of creeks and streams, high lakes and old conservation corps projects. A place of Native American legend, where you can still find hieroglyphs if you know where to look. A place, along with the flatlands of his childhood, Mac calls home.
It’s been over a year since the fire. An eternity in the blink of an eye.
They are finally, Jenna says, moving on. Which to Jenna is moving out. Leaving his mom’s house at last for a place of their own, just in time for Christmas. He gets it, Jenna’s urgency. Despite his mom’s assertion that she’d just been rattling around in Mac’s childhood home since Pops died, the house had quickly shrunk with the six of them. And even his mom had developed compassion fatigue. Still, for the first time since losing their own home, Mac is having trouble letting go. As if his mom’s house has offered him an odd holding pattern, where the cramped small rooms of his childhood staved off more recent memories.
“Keep your eyes closed until we get there, okay?” Jenna begs. The note in her voice says she knows he’ll love it, wait and see. Mac clowns for her, smiling, waving his hands blindly as if to touch what’s right in front of him but isn’t really there. He’s still wearing some of Pops’ old clothes, his soft, faded Pendleton and scuffed boots. The old felt hat he pulled from the back of the closet that his mother made a face at. I meant to throw that thing away.
His ears hold the sound of wind in a tree, his feet note tufts of grass, a kick of dry leaves. The decaying scent of cold. Jenna’s hand in the crook of his arm is firm and convincing. But it’s hard being truly blind, so he slits his eyes just a little, enough to let in light and shadow.
Jenna stops him. “Open.”
The house is clinker brick, with an ivy-covered porch. Camellia bushes ramble unchecked in the planter boxes, the last browned flowers drooping from waxy leaves, a fall of bruised petals lost on the lawn. Three mullioned windows face him, laced with cobwebs.
He tries to hold his smile.
“What do you think?” She’s up the porch steps, swinging back the door. The kids come tearing around the side of the house, bunch in behind her. Jenna’s two, Pele and Luz, both more boisterous than his son, Danny, racing as if life must be tackled breathlessly. Danny, brooding and slow beside them, remnants of a sugar cookie clinging to his cheeks.
Their clamor is about the number of bathrooms and does it have Wi-Fi and can they pick their own rooms? Mac looks up to see an owl sweep overhead, its brown and white flecked chest ruffling. He jokes the house is obviously haunted, but only Danny turns back with any kind of belief.
He moves behind his family into the cool musty interior and takes off Pops’ old hat, lets his eyes adjust. The living room is large, with plaster walls, high old ceilings. The oak floors need polish, and dust motes float from their marred surface in the late winter sun. A tarnished banister follows the curved stair to the second story. It’s a house he would have liked, once.
Jenna waves her hand at the fireplace. Scorched above its hollow firebox from careless fires, the bricks protrude at a jaunty angle, their irregularity adding a cock-eyed effect. More clinkers. His muscles ache.
“We can string lights across the mantle. And the tree will fit right here.” Jenna moves in front of a mullioned window. “It’s perfect,” she finishes, already imaging it whole.
He runs a fist around the inside of the felt hat. “You sound as if you’re sold.”
“Come look upstairs, Dad,” Danny interrupts. “Maybe the ghost is up there!”
Mac grabs his son’s chin and brushes the cookie crumbs from his cheeks.
“A ghost! And an attic!” Luz runs upstairs. Danny squiggles away, following her.
Jenna grabs Pele and pulls a measuring tape from her purse, marks the size of the small nook beyond the kitchen counter, measuring in hopes of squeezing in a yard-sale dining set she’s found. Pele holds the other end of the tape with an air of importance, a kindness toward his mother he’s exhibited since the fire. A sweet change in him Mac, ironically, worries about. Just thank God you’re all safe, is his mother’s constant mantra. And Mac has, a thousand times. He’s carried the ball, too, making sure they are taken care of, secure, hopeful. So why does he suddenly feel unbalanced, like the madcap tilt and wobble of the clinker bricks?
The house they lost he built with his own hands. Coming up out of the ground with good intentions. Spending the extra for two-by-six framing and laying the Mexican tile and wrapping the windows with hand-milled pine. He hefted in local stone and fashioned the fireplace. Crafted the design in the large family room wood floor, and honed the outdoor deck of redwood shaded by cedars and digger pine. So it wasn’t just a house, it stood for who he was, and where he chose to bring up his family, an independent footfall away from the wild places he wanted to help them explore.
In the kitchen, Mac rubs his thumb along a hairline crack in the rough grout between tiles. The tile is white, with a single strip of blue riding the backsplash. Jenna will want it replaced someday. Are they really going to fill another house with what can vanish in an instant? Will this now be the place, like his childhood home, to show up someday—distorted—in their kid’s dreams?
Mac leaves Pele and Jenna and heads upstairs. Three bedrooms are tucked under the eaves. He finds Danny and briefly takes his hand, a solid chunk in his own. Luz is doing pirouettes in the largest room, the rubber sole of her shoe squeaking across the bare floor as she twirls. She giggles when she sees him and gives up her grace for a silly pose. Danny opens the closet door and runs his hand down a row of empty hangers, making music. Pounds the walls.
“Maybe there’s a secret door to the attic in here.”
“Don’t get attached,” Luz scolds. “This is my room.”
Danny keeps up his resolute banging, ignoring her. Luz comes over and leans against Mac, the exposed pin from her Save the Planet button on her sweater catching his sleeve.
“Ouch,” he scolds but doesn’t move away. He’s the only father she’s known for the last few years, and she likes to hold on to him.
“Are we going to get it?”
“I don’t know, it’s just for rent right now, with a lease option.” She nods gravely, her thin face, not unlike her mother’s, watching him. He likes what is evident in this face, trusting up to a point, tough in the end.
He examines the clasp of her Save the Planet pin, but it’s simply cheap, and there’s no remedy for that. It angers him that schools give kids such big issues to deal with. As if by sheer will (because what else do they have at this point?) they can make a world where the ozone holds up and the Amazon forest grows rampant. He’s sure it’s creating in them a feeling of helplessness.
“There might be termites,” he says, more to himself. “It’s not exactly a new house.”
The pounding stops, and when Danny emerges from the closet he holds a snow globe in his hands.
“It was on the shelf. Can we keep it?” He shakes it up, sets it on the window sill. A happy, waving Santa in a swirl of white.
Driving from valley to mountains on their wedding day, Mac and Jenna passed under a column of Chinese Pistache trees growing along the old highway, that arched up and met overhead in a perfect green canopy, sun patterning down between the leaves. These trees stood so erect it was hard to guess they were over a hundred years old.
Behind them, stretching into the flat horizon, were miles of orchards and fields, the fields mostly rows of new-sown corn, since it was early spring, the earth in long slices of furrow and mound surrounded by a great neat border of ditch, like a moat around a castle. A few miles south would be the rice fields of his youth, stitched in their graceful, curving patterns.
Once, at a gallery near the coast, he’d seen aerial photos of looping rice fields, set on easels and turned into art. A note beside each print warned that changes in technology had threatened their beautiful designs, that now they were being planted in straight rows, like everything else.
Did the disappearance of beauty from an aerial view matter? After all, before rice fields the land had been marsh and tulle on the flyway pattern of migrating waterfowl, the waterfowl now crowded into a diminishing refuge or two. But few people stepped back far enough to notice.
You lived on a land all your life, before you realized that beneath its placid surface the soil had degenerated from overuse, the fires lit to burn the fields had choked the air, and the riparian habitat along the river had vanished. The cedars and pines were nothing but kindling.
On his wedding day, he’d cupped Jenna’s knee, driving one-handed. “You look nice. I’ve never seen your hair up like that.”
“I was saving it. Your mom will do okay with the kids, won’t she? I think she likes me,” Jenna said, fishing. “Your brother said I’m the only one she’s liked. And of course Dad likes you better than he did Roberto. Is it bad luck to talk about former marriages on your wedding day?”
“My mother loves you.” He patted her and withdrew his hand. “And superstition is only for the first time around.”
She fingered the hair at the nape of her neck, the soft strands she’d curled because they wouldn’t stay up in the knot. The Chinese Pistache trees were far behind them, and they were passing through a grove of olives.
The olives had grass left up tight around their trunks but the rows were mowed, so that the grass muffs were edged by low, verdant green. The space beneath their shaggy heads reeled with suffused light, a mysterious yellow.
They were not as old as the Pistache trees, but they looked older, as if in perpetual proof they’d descended from the first trees in the world. He saw this age even in the young saplings, growing in their gnarled and gnome-like poses, the wizened little fuzzed pellets forming among the slanted leaves. Don’t eat this fruit until you cure it.
“Want to take a detour?” he teased Jenna. “We can take the long way up. I know a place in the woods.” He slowed the car.
“Are you crazy?” She was startled. “We’d be late.”
The wheels chewed gravel, pinging rocks into the skid pan as he slowly realigned the car with the highway.
Mac stands in the last bedroom, alone. It’s smaller than the others and smells like very old, damp books. Even the wallpaper looks less like a print than water marks on neglected pages. In retrospect, in this room, it seems perfectly reasonable that they should have taken that detour, that pause, on their wedding day. Not driving eagerly toward the church and the plot of land that marked their new life.
He remembered vividly the inside of that church. The stained glass gorgeously lit behind the minister’s head, the reds and purples on fire. Everyone was dressed like Easter, turned round to look at them, in whites, orchids and baby blues. But it wasn’t yet the time of year where the heat got to you, it was barely even warm, and the women in sleeveless dresses hugged their arms, noticing the chill.
Jenna had taken Danny shopping and bought him a suit, a miniature blue jacket and white pants. He held the satin pillow with the rings nonchalantly, crooked in one arm, like he might hold his mitt before practice. His hair was wet back from his face with some kind of goo (that would be Mac’s mother’s touch) and his forehead looked alarmed.
Mac felt ready, walking into all this. His children, her children, soon to be their children. A cobbled-together family he meant to make whole. Pele without a tie because he’d insisted, and Luz in her mother’s pearl necklace. Other people he knew and didn’t know, Jenna’s relatives and friends, acquaintances from work. Her father, a big man leaning on a preposterously small cane. Pops, still alive but the sad gray tell-tale skin at his eyes already disfiguring, standing slightly shorter than Mac’s mother, in her new cream dress.
Here he’d had no image of the destruction that would ambush them, would have been appalled at this future twist of fate. This very church they were in reduced to ashes. To a heap of rubble and a slash of concrete wall, where a weeping woman would be painted, watched over by rows of chairs burned to silver skeletons, still lined up as if for some exquisite feast.
Instead, Mac was intent on the prayers, and the service, could repeat every word of the sermon, and recall the look on the minister’s face, whose expression was too glad, not knowing them. Then, too, he was looking past the minister’s face, into the reds and purples, not seeing or hearing a thing. Thinking how he’d shake everyone’s hand afterward, and eat cake and drink champagne, because most sacred acts seem to be followed by a party. And it buoyed him up to find his dreams backed by all that good will.
Danny stepped forward with the rings, nervous after all, shaking so he nearly lost the satin pillow. He smiled encouragement at his son. We’ll be a real family now, eh partner? The minister nodded for them to turn.
They walked down the aisle and there was rice and music, a burst of fanfare like applause. Out on the steps Jenna was trembling, and she teased him for being so calm. People came up to them with kisses and handshakes. His mother cried. Jenna tossed her bouquet to a knot of girls on the lawn, their high, delighted squeals and the pastel skirts pressing at their knees in the wind, silken, following the short flight of jonquils and forget-me-knots tied with a yellow ribbon.
Jenna ran her hands down the front of her dress in a dusting motion, as if she were cleaning house, and he grabbed them and held them tight in his own, a man promising her a certain future.
How has he moved from spring to winter in an instant? To a land scorched, a community scattered, a listing house that seems suffused with twilight? Everything precarious? The shadows spreading through the window in the bedroom are split on the opposite wall into hundreds of tiny squares. The squares breathe with the movement of a tree outside, a tall redwood whose boughs lift and fall in troublesome slowness. The roof slopes down on either side of the window and Mac leans against the assurance of timber and sheetrock, the surviving brick and mortar of the outside wall. It’s a return to valley life. The yard will have to be enough, a fence marking boundaries with impunity. Across the way the neighbors have their lights strung up, a tree blinking through the window.
Mac watches the lights, but has his own images of Christmas. Not the lit-up house and a laden tree, but out duck hunting with Pops. Pops loved to hunt, and that’s when they’d bonded. Going out on Christmas Eve, he had Pops to himself, a side of the man he didn’t usually experience. The felt hat and bulky camo jacket, the hot bitter coffee from the battered Stanley thermos he passed to Mac as if sharing some illicit brew. Their breath steamy in the dank air, the stillness as the sun went low and the geese and ducks flew in. Pops and Mac both in thrall as the birds massed, held in the sky’s grip before floating down to kiss the water’s skin.
After he and Jenna were married, the Chinese Pistache came down, a move for a wider highway. He imagines a pin that pleads, Save the Chinese Pistache, or Save the Looping Rice Fields. Maybe it helps just to name the loss. To acknowledge that he has been shaken, stirred to bits like that snow globe, and hasn’t settled.
Jenna calls from the foot of the stairs. He hears the loud echo of footfalls as Luz and Danny run down to meet her. But even with the kids around her, she calls up the stairs a second time, “Where is everybody?” making him smile.
He holds his answer, lost in the fullness of Christmas. This twilight time of year, where the laws of physics feel broken, the world slightly unhinged. The maw of a canyon, the space flanking stars, the beats of a broken heart, between which anything can happen.