|photo by Chris Turner ~ story by Everett Peacock|
Short Drive to Never Never
My glass almost slipped from my fingers, saved from an impact with the stone floor by only the edge of her highly polished coffee table. Just as well. There wasn't much more I could break anyhow.
I quickly averted my eyes from it's reflective surface. They had told me to avoid mirrors. My eyes, they continued telling me, would find fault with every thought, every emotion, certainly every selfish tear reflected there. I was supposed to begin building a wall, to protect myself. Mirrors, apparently, bore right through walls.
Reflections I could avoid. The flood of guilt I could not. It increased its force with every new brick of my wall, actually more of a dam, that I tried to put into its path. This morning, its exit from darkness not yet complete, I had almost made my peace, almost found it OK to let the river take me. Unfortunately, after feeling it hold me under longer than necessary I discovered its twisted game. There would be no resolution, no escape. It would never drown me.
I sat down on the floor, in the clutter of my project. The pictures of her were now neatly organized, from the beginning all the way to the end. The plastic coated picture album felt more bloated than when I had paid for it. Not nearly enough to justify a long life, but certainly more than if I had only allowed it to be.
Leave it alone. No. I couldn't do that, couldn't let the river never quite drown me. It would just dunk me under every so often until I thought I surely must be dead, only to force me to the surface for one more breath of humiliation.
My glass whispered to me, with the lure of a casual lover. Come to me. Here, on the edge of blackness. Drink my wine, drown in me. Drown here, in me.
I could do that. Or, I could open the book one more time. Either poison might work. But, the book... the book was the more painful option. So, I chose that.
Pushing the piles of magazines, the scissors, the glue and the marker pens all aside, the back of my hand moved slowly, up to my glass again. Stroking its coolness, its smoothness, as I drew in a deep breath, I pushed it back deeper onto the black table. And, looked down at the book.
There, Emily Jane began it all in the usual fashion. Swaddled in pink blankets and surrounded by balloons. Look how young her mother was! So much dark hair! So, so long ago. The picture was worn at the edges, only now protected from the hundreds of hands that had once touched it. Next to it was another. Emily Jane on her first of many beloved horses. Perhaps this was only a pony, yes. It must be just a pony. She was so small I can't believe she had been allowed on. Her mother must have been very loving, very trusting in the benign nature of God.
The fascination I found in her story was intoxicating, more so than anything my glass might promise. Here, on the next page, I found more images of her years developing into a vibrant and formidable young woman. Growing taller and impossibly more beautiful. More pages turned, more smiles beamed up at me. Bicycles, toys, horses. Always a horse or two around. Soon the trophies began sparkling in the background of pictures. Young, confident men began appearing on the edges of some pictures, always looking at her, never at the camera.
Another page fell heavily against the previous ones, each a ponderous fall against the other. They felt the weight as much as I did; a soul sucking pull toward the dust.
I shifted awkwardly. The stone floor was unyielding, incapable of any real comfort. A dimming lamp bulb refused to assist, loathing my presence, my intrusion into a world which had been abandoned. I could ignore hostility. At least the shadows were shallow.
Another page deeper into the book, high school dominated everything. It was friends, teachers and horses, only. Her mother must have taken keeping-some-distance to heart, leaving her to shine by herself more often than not. Preparing her, I suppose, for the inevitable venture into the big, wild world to come.
My glass wasn't whispering anymore. It demanded I look up, look at it. Close that damn book, it shouted, you should hold me now. I did look up, I have to admit I did. My lips were dry, there was no doubt about that. But, I looked away, again. Back to the book.
Strangely, there soon was a blank page. My hand touched the plastic sheet of that page, hoping to feel for perhaps an invisible picture that might have escaped my eyes. Surely it would be most important, having made the effort to hide. My fingers felt only smooth coldness. Like the side of my glass. Nothingness.
The next page and those that followed looked a bit different from all the earlier ones, but it continued Emily Jane's story. It was the least I could do. There were magazine clippings about a young woman from the country setting equine records. Others about an engagement to a nice boy from Sacramento. A beach wedding in Maui. Shopping trips to San Francisco, pictures of eating at Fisherman's Wharf.
I turned the page slowly, this time it fell with less weight. Pictures of babies popped up like mushrooms. Advertisements for strollers, daycare and college savings accounts filled the next several pages. I could see they had it all. Great jobs, family, a future. And, horses.
A ranch appeared, with a fine picket fence encircling what had to be a hundred acres. Majestic trees lined her driveway, the lead up to a magnificent home, not just a house. A big family was there, sitting on the grand stairs spilling down from a sprawling veranda that glowed nicely in the shadows of a great roof.
Her clothes changed often in these pictures, never the same outfit, always a new set of shoes or gloves or some accessory. The accompanying kids grew taller and more attractive, their clothes just as varied and fashionable as any well appointed fashion model. Cars were always the latest year. Shiny, attractive, full featured and some even electric. It's as if her life was so rich she felt she must try every experience, wear every new thread imaginable, consume everything the world had to offer someone as beautiful as herself.
Her mother and dad must have been so very, very proud. Pictures of older folks were sprinkled in, but not as often as I would have thought. Perhaps her mother and dad were busy, or traveling the world as parents of such a woman might. Having launched her successfully into life they must have decided to relaunch their own lives. I looked over at my glass, sarcasm filling me. Wouldn't that be nice, I thought.
I turned the page carefully. They were beginning to feel increasingly fragile.
The magazines kept a watchful eye on her interesting life. Middle age seemed to treat her very kindly. The kids must now be adults, off on their own adventures around the world; climbing mountains and investigating the limitless boundaries of the gifted. She smiled at it all. In fact, she was smiling in all the pictures after that blank page. Whomever the photographer was, or were as the case may be, they were certainly professionals. Perfect lighting, perfect composition and focus. I didn't see one head cut off anywhere.
The remaining pages were few, which prompted my glass to commence screaming. Now or never, it cried! It sounded desperate to me, a little forlorn. I watched it sweat in the manufactured heat, pooling against itself on the black table. It might have been the lighting, but the condensation almost had the darkness found in spilled blood. Without looking away, I turned another page, feeling it lightly splash against the previous, before looking back down to the book. My breath found some courage in that. I took another deep draw of air. I couldn't drown.
This page showed her as an elegant older lady. London, Paris, the Queen, Effie. Always wearing the most extravagant clothing, always sporting a dazzling smile. I couldn't find her children in any of these pictures, or perhaps I just couldn't recognize them. Kids will do that. Morph right into someone you might never know in a crowd many years from now.
My glass was whispering again, having failed at yelling. It was begging me now, almost weeping. Please, it said softly. Please close the book. Even if you don't but sip me, please stop now. While you can. I looked at my glass with a new level of respect. It was losing some of its selfishness. Or it was lying. Probably the latter, of course. But, I had to give it points for presentation.
My eyes fell back to the last two pages. It was obvious to anyone that cared to look that Emily Jane had lived a full and satisfying life. The pages of this photo book proved it quite convincingly. It had a substantial weight to it. I could easily ignore the freshly cut magazine paper all over the floor, the glue sticks and the subtle mistakes.
The next to last page held only one image. Emily Jane sitting side saddle on a majestic Kentucky bred mare. Handlers held the reins and stood close by, due to her advanced age. But you could tell, if you studied her eyes, she was confident. And safe. And happy.
Outside the window the first hints of light were struggling through low clouds. It was almost time to leave. My glass was silent. I respected that. Gracious defeat.
The last page, well, the last picture had its own defeat I suppose. The defeat even the most fortunate human, like Emily Jane surely had been, must eventually meet.
The lighting in the image was spectacular, textures of radiance reaching out to touch not just the roadside memorial but any who gazed upon it. It was a bit unusual, I had to admit, that such a fabulous life as Emily Jane's would only warrant a simple remembrance on the side of a high desert road. I could ignore that glaring fact. I could.
I had to.
Closing the book, I walked past the table and stopped. My glass ignored me, having given up. Fine. Give up then. I cannot. The door closed softly upon my exit.
The drive down from Truckee was uneventful. The tourists were between seasons and the locals were taking Sunday morning off. I had the pavement all to myself, and the book. It sat silently next to me, neither whispering nor yelling. It might have been sobbing. Someone was.
In another hour I was there. Emily Jane's roadside memorial. I pulled off the road, just opposite, a moment after sunrise. It wasn't Easter, so I didn't expect any miracles, but one would have been greatly appreciated. Sitting in my car, not yet willing to turn off the engine, I stared out my driver's side window. Time had worked against the wood, ropes and tack that had been left behind. Evidently, winter had decided to let it all stand one more season.
Without looking I reached over for the book while opening my reluctant door. The ground crunched a bit under my shoes. Rustlings of wind were trying to get going, waiting on the sun to move just a bit higher in the sky. My eyes crinkled at the biting cold, hoping a few tears would protect them. I allowed it.
I got to the middle of the road and stopped. Paused actually, not stopped. Nothing could stop me. This was supposed to save me. It might. Yet, it felt like it would first tear my heart right out of my chest, piece by broken piece. Maybe I could drown then. Maybe.
I took a few more steps forward. The edge of the pavement leading up to the collection of some of her favorite things pushed back against me. My hopes of redemption were not welcome here, it growled. I, of all people, was not allowed. OK, that was quite understandable. Some things can't be undone. Burned bridges need only carpenters, no one else. Certainly not the fire starter. My toes pressed hard against the bottom of my shoes, as I waited.
I'm a patient sinner. The sun climbed an inch higher. I stood very still. It climbed another inch, and another. I remained at the edge. There, with the book in my hands, holding it like I used to hold a Bible, I stood resolute. That reminded me of something from a long time ago, almost dreamlike in its faded recollection. I looked up into the sky, hoping that somewhere mercy could be shown. All I saw were contrails, weaving a cage above any and all that slithered here on the ground.
I eventually sank to my knees, my hands and knees, pushing the book ahead of me. Perhaps I couldn't walk, but I could always crawl. The sun climbed another inch higher. My eyes struggled to look up at the wood, at her engraved name. It was OK, I told myself, it was OK. Dirt and dried summer grass reluctantly let me approach, if only slowly. Another inch for the sun, another inch for me. Dust swirled up around me, welcoming another. The memorial finally allowed me to approach.
Friends had written various things on the wood, but most had faded away. Except some red paint. I pushed the book up against the wood's base and sat back on my heels, digging into my pocket for my black marker pen.
“I'm so sorry, Emily Jane.” My fingers finally located the pen deep down in the lint of a corner of my pocket. “I've brought you a book...” I had to look away, embarrassed at such an offering. I glanced up. The sky was deep enough to afford me anonymity. There the contrails were weaving themselves tighter and tighter together, little silver spiders spilling white silk behind them. God was up there somewhere, in that blueness. On the other side of that web.
“It's a book of your life, honey.” My fingers fumbled with the pen. “It was rich, and long and from what I could imagine quite fulfilling. Family, travel, beautiful things and happiness. Lots of happiness.” I accidentally dropped the cap into the sand. “And horses! Lots of magnificent horses.”
The wood had decayed badly except of course where someone had written her age in red paint. No birth date, no death date. Just her age. No one had to do the math. It was right there, so there would be no mistake.
“Emily Jane...” I paused, relishing the last time I might ever utter her name. Such a beautiful collection of syllables. Em-lee-Jane. My Em-lee-Jane.
“I wish I had done better, honey.” I sketched the number 92 onto the wood, going over it a few times so that it would not soon fade. 92. “I'm so damn sorry.” The pen fell into the sand as well. It didn't matter. I stood up and looked down at what I had done, or more accurately, what I hadn't done. I had left her mother before she was even born, become a refugee from my responsibilities and led my demons into the mountains. It took several minutes for it all to play out again. Maybe, just maybe... if I could have taught her how to drive things would be different.
I looked up into the sky, her sky, one last time. The contrails above had now merged into a thick canopy of cirrus. Walking back across the pavement, dust clinging to my boots, I could hear my demons calling from the mountains. They could wait. Reaching my car I found my reflection in the back door window. Quickly, I focused through that to my old box of vestments sitting with infinite patience under my collar and cross.
From my car I tortured myself one more time, and looked. Even from here one could still see that under the black 92 there was a red 16.