How She Remembers It
They left Missoula with a good bit of sun yet in the sky—what would be dusk at any other time of year. The light was at their backs, and the rivers, rather than charging straight down from out of the mountains, now meandered through broader valleys, which were suspended in that summer light, a sun that seemed to show no inclination of moving. Lilly’s father had only begun to lose his memory, seemed more distracted than forgetful, then. He had been a drinker, too, once upon a time, though she did not know that in those days. It had been long ago, before she was even born. A hard drinker, one who had gone all the way to rock bottom, good years wasted, her mother would tell her later—but he was better now. Though recently those few memories he did still have—the reduced or compromised roster of them—were leaving. Even small things from the day before, or a week ago.
The pastures were soft and lush, the grass made emerald by May’s alternations of thunderstorms and sunlight, and the farmers had not yet made their first cutting of hay. The rivers had cleared up and were running blue, scouring the year’s silt from the bottoms, cleaning and scrubbing every stone. From time to time she and her father would see a bald eagle sitting in a cottonwood snag overlooking the river. There were more deer in the fields than cattle—occasionally they’d see a few Black Angus, like smudges of new charcoal amidst the rain-washed green—but mostly just deer, some of them swollen-bellied with the fawns that would be born any day, while others were still round with lactation, and with the fawns already having been dropped, simply not yet visible, still completely in hiding, in those tall grasses—and the bucks with their still-growing antlers velvet-clad, so that they glowed like candelabras when they passed through shafts and slants of that lying-down light. Lilly was twelve, and her father was only fifty-two.
They rode with the windows down, the air still warm but not superheated now, and in the brief curves of canyons they could detect a cooling that felt exquisite on their bare arms, with so much sun elsewhere, all around. It was only another four hours to the Paradise Valley, south of Livingston, where her father had friends, though he said if she wanted to get a room before that, they would, or if she wanted to stop and camp, they could do that, too. Lilly said she didn’t care, and she didn’t—it was enough to just be driving with the windows down, looking around, and thinking about things.
Now the tinge of valley light was shifting, the gold and green was becoming infused with purple and blue, and the touch of the air on their arms more delicious yet. Mayflies were hatching out along the river, drifting columns of them rising dense as fog or smoke and bouncing off their arms like little needles; and farther on, the larger stoneflies began to hatch, and were soon thudding off the windshield and smearing it with a pastel of the greens and yellows of insect blood, which the windshield wiper turned briefly into a slurry before wiping the way clean and clear again.
Nearing Deer Lodge at the beginning of true dusk, somewhere between nine-thirty and ten, they saw the colorful lights of a tiny carnival, one of the portable setups that’s able to fit all of its equipment onto a single long flatbed tractor-trailer, with the various parts for the five or six ancient rides so grease-cloaked and oil-blackened, and the hydraulic hoses so leaky and patched together with pipe clamps, that no self-respecting parent would let their child ride. And yet, in the summer, when a carnival suddenly appeared in the midst of such a small town, on a once-vacant lot, and knowing that in only two or three days the carnival would be gone, then what self-respecting parent could say no?
The highway that passed over Deer Lodge was slightly elevated and above the town, so that from their vantage they were looking down on the carnival. The lights of the fair, viewed through the canopy of fully leaved, summer-green cottonwoods—and in particular, the lights of the Ferris wheel, seeming to rise up into, and then somehow rotate through, the foliage—looked like slow-budding, continuous fireworks going off, never quite rising above the canopy. It resembled a secret, private festivity, and they exited as if it had been their planned destination all along.
The carnival was so tiny that once they were on the downtown streets of Deer Lodge, they couldn’t even find it at first. The streets were wide and dusty, and they could smell the June scent of the waxy buds of the cottonwoods, just opening. Both sides of the street were lined with the white fluff of cottonwood seeds, like drifts of snow. Up ahead, they could hear the grinding machinery of the fair, the squeak and rattle of the ancient gears, but there was no loudspeaker music, so that the atmosphere was not so much one of frivolity as dutiful, even lugubrious, labor.
Still, it was a fair, and when they rounded the last corner they could see the lights again, a sepulchral glow coming from the popcorn stand, and the rickety yellow iron gates set up all around the vacant city lot on which the carnival had set up shop.
The Ferris wheel had stopped in the time since they had turned off the highway, and there were no other children around, despite darkness only just now descending. They parked beneath one of the big cottonwoods and got out—the sweet scentedness of the buds and new leaves was almost overwhelming, and a strong dry wind was blowing from the west, sending the cottonwood fluff sailing past them—and they passed through the worn turnstile, where there was no ticket taker. They wandered around, looking at the little rides, marveling at the decrepitude of the infrastructure—rides that had been manufactured in the 1940s and ’50s, and with puddles of oil already staining the dust of the gravel lot from where the rides had been standing for but a day or two, and with scraps and flanges of steel welded into patches, in places, atop the rest of the oil-darkened machinery, so fatigued now by time and the friction of innumerable revolutions that it seemed the wind itself might be sufficient to snap them off at their base.
A perfect summer run through the country, Lilly thought, would have had the carnival still be open, or the proprietors would have agreed to crank the rides back up one last time for her father. But the rides had closed at ten, and the workers, nearly as dark and oil-stained as the machinery, were smoking their cigarettes, and beginning to disassemble the carnival. The tractor-trailer on which it would all be folded and stacked and strapped down was already being revved up, rumbling and smoking—in no better shape than the rides—and as they went from one ride to the next, asking if each might still be open, the men who were busy with wrenches and sockets shook their heads and spoke to them in Spanish, not unkindly but in a way that let them know the momentum of their world was different from the leisurely pace of her and her father’s. In a perfect world, she knew, she and her father would have ridden in the Ferris wheel up above the canopy of the summer cottonwoods, up high enough to look out at the last rim of purple and orange sunlight going down behind the Pintler Mountains, their crests still snowcapped; but in the real world it was darkening down in the dusty little town, and they were just able to buy a cotton candy cone before walking back out to their truck and continuing on their journey. And it was enough, was more than enough, to have the pink cotton candy, and to be driving on, and to simply imagine, rather than really remember, what it would have been like, riding the Ferris wheel around and around, with the whole carnival to themselves. It’s been so long now that in Lilly’s mind she almost remembers it like that—they were only a few minutes removed from having had that happen—and yet in a way she can’t explain or know, it was almost better to not; better to miss, now and again, than to get everything you want, all the time, every time.
They stopped for gas at a Cenex convenience store—all those years later, her father still wouldn’t shop at an Exxon, for what they had done at Prince William Sound, not the spill so much as the cover-up—and while he went inside to get a cup of coffee, having decided they would drive on through the night, all the way to the Paradise Valley, Lilly looked out her window at the woman in the car parked next to them.
She was driving an old red Cadillac, the paint so sun-faded as to be approaching more of a salmon color, and the fender wells were rust-gutted from decades of plowing through the salt-slurry of interstate winter slush. It was a soft-top, with a once-white vinyl roof stained greenish-yellow by the tassels and seeds from the maple tree beneath which it must have been parked, with no garage to protect it from the weather—even now, luminous green fragments clung to the chrome rainseams of the windows—and though the woman had not asked Lilly’s counsel, Lilly found herself wanting to give her one piece of advice, which was that she should replace her tires, which were not merely balding, but mismatched in size and style. At least one of them was a radial, and worn so thin that the fraying steel wires of the undertread were springing out of the thin rubber. The car was an eyesore, but the tires themselves were an actual affront, and a hazard.
The woman, perhaps in her early fifties, though possibly simply hard-used, and much younger—or, just as possible, much older, and simply preserved, pickled somehow by toxins—had brittle orange-yellow hair and a sleeveless red T-shirt—what Lilly’s father called a wife-beater shirt—and a weightlifter’s shoulders, though with devastatingly sallow and flabbed-out arms. She wasn’t so much fat—not really fat at all—as just loose; as if once, she had been hard, but no longer, and never again—and she was just sitting in her car smoking a cigarette, smoking it down to a nub. She labored at it further a short while, then flicked it out the window in Lilly’s direction without even looking, or noticing that Lilly was looking, and then turned away from Lilly to murmur some endearment to her traveling companion, a nasty little rat-colored Chihuahua.
From her lap, she lifted a pink ice cream cone—which must have been her reason for stopping—and held it up for the little dog to eat. He scampered into her lap and began licking at it, fastidiously at first, but then really gnawing at the cone, wolfing it down, and she continued to hold it for him, fascinated and charmed by his nasty appetite, as the ice cream—bubblegum? strawberry?—began to splash and froth around his muzzle. She was still murmuring her adoration to him, fascinated by what she clearly perceived to be his singular skill, when Lilly’s father came back out and got in the car.
He barely glanced at her, and as they backed out and then pulled away, the Chihuahua was still attacking the ice cream cone, had both sticky-damp paws up on the woman’s chest now, laboring to get down into the cone, and still the woman beheld the little dog as if he was an amazement. And for all Lilly knew, when he had completed that cone, she was going to go in and get him another one. She looked like she had totally lost track of time and space: that stoned as she was, she easily could have remained there all night, slumping a little lower in her seat, settling, seemingly intent upon going nowhere. It was terrifying, and as they continued on through the night, satisfied for having simply gotten off the road briefly and having seen and experienced the fair, if not actually riding any of the rides, Lilly ate her cotton candy leisurely, slumping down in her seat and pretending, for a moment, and with a delicious thrill of horror, that she was that woman in the Cadillac, that that was where her life would or might end up—lonely, alcoholic, brain fried, lost, and needing to feed a nasty little dog ice cream, to have even that friendship.
As they drove, the stars blinked brightly above them—her father had cleaned the windshield again—and Lilly pulled loose stray tendrils of her cotton candy and released them out the window, into the wind, where she imagined birds up from South America finding them and, not knowing they were edible, weaving them into their nests.
She made up stories about the woman in the old red car. She had just gotten out of jail after serving twenty years and didn’t have a friend in the world, or her husband had just that day been sent to jail for twenty or more years, perhaps her whole family. Or maybe she had just found out that her little dog was going to have to be put down—it had a tumor the size of a grapefruit, or at least a Ping-Pong ball, hidden in its stomach. Maybe the woman had been a great beauty once, in another life, another town, another state, forty or more years ago—back when her car had been new—and maybe, at times, she still believed herself to be. Maybe . . .
“What are you thinking?” her father asked.
“Nothing,” she said.
They rode with the music still playing, putting safe and enormous distance between themselves and the woman with the dog. Driving on, peering forward into the night, and thinking about Yellowstone.
When she woke up, they had crossed over the Divide and it was the middle of the night, and they were in the Paradise Valley. They were driving slowly down a rain-slicked winding road, and hail was bouncing off their roof and windshield like marbles. The first thing she saw, and the reason she had awakened, was her father slowing to a stop, with the hail coming down so hard that he couldn’t see far enough to continue on, and the roar on the roof so loud that even by shouting they could not make themselves heard or understood. They sat there for a few minutes with the engine running, and the hail streaming all around them, and then, like a fist unclenching, the storm began to release its hold, loosening back into drumming rain, and the road appeared before them again, steaming and hissing in their headlights, and paved with hail three inches deep.
They proceeded carefully, the mist clearing in tatters like smoke from a battlefield, and the road untraveled before them. They crossed the Yellowstone River, which was still running muddy, and which was frothy already with the quick runoff from the storm—green boughs of cottonwoods drifted past crazily, bobbing and pitching, so that Lilly knew the storm must have originated farther upstream, earlier in the evening, the high snowy mountains attracting lightning, like beacons, as soon as the evening first began to cool dramatically—and as they cracked their windows in order to clear the fog from the windshield, the iced-tea, summery scent of hail-crushed mint from along the riverbanks was intense, as was that of the shredded green cottonwood leaves and fresh-churned black riverside earth, the loam ripped away by the rushing waters. It was like a stew of fresh scent, and felt as nurturing as any other stew.
The grass was tall along the narrow road, taller than the roof of their car, with bright white horse fences lining either side, and more cottonwoods grew close to the road, so that they formed a canopy above. In these places the road was covered with a mix of hail pebbles and leaves, some of the leaves with their bright green sides up and others with the pale silvery undersides showing. Several times her father had to stop and get out and clear the road of limbs. He dragged them to the side as if pulling a canoe, or dragging a deer he had shot, his breath leaping in fog-clouds from the exertion, and his tracks crisp and precise in the template of new hail.
It began to rain lightly, with a south wind stirring, sending the fallen green leaves skittering across the top of the snow and hail. They turned up a gravel side road and drove past a series of old red barns. Her father seemed surprised to see them, stopped and peered, then gestured toward one and said that he and Lilly’s mother had slept there once when they first came into this country, but there had been an owl living in the barn, and it had kept them awake most of the night. And farther on, the road came to its end at a trailhead, where there was barely room, in the summer-tall grasses, for the car to turn around, and when they did so, the neatness and solitude of their tracks, revealing them to be the only travelers out and about in such a storm, and in such a world, was profound: as if the terrain and territory of all of the mountains, and all of the valley through which they had driven, was theirs and theirs alone, for that evening, at least. As if they were not exploring lands that had already been explored many times over, but instead territories that were entirely unknown, not yet dreamed or discovered.
The rain was drumming and blowing steadily past them now and Lilly stayed in the car while her father hurriedly set up the tent in the steaming blaze cast by their headlights. The rain appeared to be drifting in a curtain only along the foothills because she could see now in the valley slightly below them a few faint and widely scattered lights, farmhouses and ranches spaced far apart, but with their infrequent lights defining nonetheless the shape of the valley and the course of the river. When he finished putting the tent up he unrolled their sleeping bags, and Lilly raced from the car to the tent, crawled into her bag, as warm and dry as she could ever remember feeling, and slept without dreams or recollections of the day.
The green valley was gilded with light when they awoke in the morning. The air was cool and scrubbed clean from the storm and the hail had already melted. Other than the limbs and branches and leaves, there was no clue that the hail had been there in the first place. The sound sleepers in the valley would awaken and look out and think that they had mostly slept through a thunderstorm, and would know nothing of the winter scene they had missed completely: every bit as absent from their minds as if they had seen it, but then had it swept from their memory.
There was a rainbow over the valley and steam rising from the river far below. Lilly turned and looked behind them and was stunned to see the Beartooths right at their feet. She could feel the cold emanating from their glaciers as when one opens a freezer or refrigerator door. It made her laugh out loud to see such immense and jagged mountains rising right before them, and for her to have been standing there with her back to them, unknowing, as she stared out at the sylvan little valley.
She and her father were right at the gates of the mountains—that was what the trailhead was for, leading hunters up into the crags and ice fields.
Lilly kept looking out at the valley, then turning and looking back up at the Beartooths. How could any traveler decide which to choose? She chose both, and stared out at the Paradise Valley for a while, and then at the Beartooths, while her father stowed the sleeping bags and shook the water from the tent fly before spreading it in the back windshield of the car to dry in the morning sun as they drove.
They got in the car and drove down the winding road, away from the mountains and down into the surging fecundity of the valley, puddles splashing beneath them. They drove down to the little guest cabins and local diner along one of the side creeks that fed into the fast, broad Yellowstone. The lodge was really nothing more than a tiny mercantile with a gas pump, and he and her mother—back when they’d been exploring this country, just wandering around, being young—had stayed here some nights, if they had money for a room, in the series of tiny log cottages, painted dark brown, that lined the edges of the rushing, noisy creek.
A garish 1950s-style faux-neon sign, hugely oversized and illuminated by rows of individual brightly painted lightbulbs, had been welded to an immense steel post to hold its colossal weight, the kind of sign one might see outside a lounge advertising itself as the Thunderbird or the Wagon Wheel, but would generally not expect to encounter back in a quiet grove of trees far off the beaten track in south-central Montana.
It pleased her father to see that the sign was still there, by the rushing little creek, and he got out and took a picture of it to show her mother, though he said that to appreciate it fully, one needed to see it at night.
A hand-lettered cardboard sign, hanging on the door, said that the restaurant was closed for the day. As they left, they saw that the backside of the marquis advertised an upcoming outdoor concert the very next night—Martha Scanlan and the Revelators—and it was strange to see how quiet and isolated the hidden little grove was, in contrast to the garish ambition of the sign. Lilly felt badly for Martha Scanlan, whomever she was, and her Revelators. No one would ever find this place, and no one would ever see the spectacular illumination of her name in the colorful lights. A few cows from the pasture across the road, and the horses, on the other side of the creek. At least she would maybe get to eat breakfast in the diner. Lilly could imagine the cigarette smoke, and the dusty display case of Certs breath mints by the ancient cash register. She imagined Martha Scanlan tuning her guitar, beginning to prepare already, days ahead of time, for this bad idea of a concert. A barbecue was advertised to go along with it. Perhaps she was in one of the Dakotas at this very moment, hurrying on toward the lodge in an old Volkswagen bus, imagining a throng awaiting her, and a buzz building, rather than this quiet, secret grove of seven cabins. Perhaps the same storm that had washed over Lilly and her father the night before was now lashing her, out on the prairie somewhere, out in the badlands.
They stopped instead at a KOA along the river, where an elderly couple was just opening their store, still a few minutes before seven. They saw them walking over together to unlock the store, holding hands. There were pink and yellow rosebushes planted out in front of the small log cabin store, already blooming—back home, the roses would not bloom for another week or two—and the storm had torn numerous petals loose, so that they were cast down on the damp pavement like alms. The bushes had surely been planted and tended by the old lady, or perhaps both she and the old man, but they appeared not to notice the spoilage, or if they noticed, not to mind. Their breath rose in clouds as they spoke quietly to one another, and perhaps they simply thought the storm’s residue was pretty.
There were no other residents up and about. Perhaps a dozen or more behemoths—Winnebangos, her father called them—their silver sides as shiny as salmon, rested back among the old cottonwoods, but not even a generator was stirring, and Lilly imagined that it must have been a pretty rough night for all the old folks, no more able to sleep through the storm than had they been in a giant popcorn popper, and that after the storm had passed through, they must have wandered outside to inspect the damage, hoping for the best: that if the hail had caused any blemishes to their beloved, shining homes, they would not be visible to the larger world, but would be confined to the roofs of the travel homes, unseen by anything but the birds passing overhead.
Lilly and her father gave the old couple a minute or two to get the lights turned on and the cash register warmed up, and then they went inside and bought a breakfast bar each, some dry and unsatisfactory, crumbly little thing. Her father got a coffee while she got an orange juice, and then they were on the road again, driving early, through the greenest part of summer.
It is said that periods of deep emotional stress are sometimes accompanied by an increase in extrasensory perception, and inexplicable, startling connections or recurrences. Lilly believes it—has found it to be true—though she could not begin to guess the reason why this might be so. In a way, it could almost be seen as comforting, to realize that as the fabric and surface of a life begins to fray and disintegrate, and a traveler finds him- or herself in freefall, that there exists beneath the firmament of our relative unawareness the logic and order that is far more connected and interlocked. As if the truth—any deeper truth—can come easily, and quickly, when it needs to. When at long last it absolutely must.
Lilly has never heard, however, if such an increase in ESP, or such taut connectivity, can be linked also to periods of deep contentedness and extraordinary peace. As if there were also an equally ordered world above, to which the endings of one’s nerves are more receptive, not due to their being frazzled or stripped bare, but stimulated, nurtured, by—what other word is there for it?—the condition of being loved deeply, and loving in return.
They were just riding, her father and Lilly. She didn’t know then that something was wrong with him, and that he wasn’t going to get better—though she did know that there was something wonderfully right with her, something gloriously good about the strange way the elements of one’s world line up, sometimes—in times of duress, but also maybe during times of greatest ease: they had not traveled five miles before seeing the lady in the faded red Cadillac broken down on the side of the road, her hood elevated like the jaw-sprung maw of a shark awaiting its prey.
Despite the chill of the morning, smoke and steam boiled out from the engine’s interior. It was not the simple gray-white steam of radiator boil-over, but was instead a black writhing column of burning oil, old oil. The fire of a two or three thousand dollar repair bill, or maybe no repair bill at all.
The woman with the dog was sitting on the side of the road next to the great ship of a car, like a detached hunter watching the last throes of an animal the hunter has just dispatched, or an old draft animal—aging plow horse, or downed heifer—to which the veterinarian has just administered the final injection.
The dog, which she held clutched in both arms like a teddy bear, appeared to be concerned by the situation, occasionally writhing and struggling, but the woman herself was the picture of reflective equanimity, save for the half-empty bottle of vodka sitting in the gravel beside her, which rested there as might a bottle of water sit beside a dehydrated triathlete pausing between events. She appeared so resigned, so accustomed, to this type of situation that her relaxed demeanor could almost be viewed, Lilly supposed, as a form of confidence.
She thought she understood why her father hesitated—why he was annoyed, even, that on such a perfect morning, there was this complication to their day, this unwelcome challenge or summons to Samaritanhood—but she was surprised by the anger she felt there in the car.
He actually drove on past the woman, not really deliberating—she and her father both knew he was going to stop and turn around, and go back—but instead allowing himself, she thinks now, the brief luxury of believing he could keep going. Of believing he was free to keep on going.
The woman watched him pass but made no gesture, no outreach or call for help other than to make a sour face briefly as she confirmed once again that she understood how the world was—that there was no mercy in it for her, and that people could not be expected to do the right things, could, in fact, be counted upon to do the wrong things—but then she quickly settled back into her I-don’t-give-a-fuck beatitude, just sitting there and watching the western skies and holding tightly to the dog.
She was surprised, Lilly could tell, when her father pulled over and, checking for traffic, made the wide loop of a turnaround, and headed back. She was already a little drunk, a little unsteady, as she labored to rise from her cross-legged position, still gripping the dog, and whether her inebriation was the result of new work in that direction already begun that morning, or remnant from some further, more drunken place the previous night, Lilly had no way of knowing or guessing.
Where had she spent the night during the storm, Lilly wondered, and what had she thought of it? Had she even noticed it?
Lilly stayed in the car but with her window rolled down while her father got out and walked over to assess the smoking car. Even over the scent of the burning oil, she could smell the woman now—old sweat and salt and above all else stale alcohol—and she heard her ask her father in the predictable growl if he would like a sip. She held the bottle up to him as if it was a vintage of a particularly fine year. As if she had him spotted.
“I was going to go to Yellowstone,” the woman said, staggering a bit. The dog was perched in her arms like a sailor in a crow’s nest, ready to leap free should she topple, but with the practiced familiarity also of a veteran who had weathered many such tempests. “I wanted to go see the buffalo,” she said. She made a small flapping motion with one hand. “Wooves, and all that shit.” Danger. Excitement. Now she looked at the dying car, her pride and freedom, her other self. Her better self. “I don’t guess you can fix it,” she said to Lilly’s father.
There was a pay phone back at the KOA. When she and the dog got in the backseat, Lilly turned and smiled at both of them—and hoped that the withering of her face did not betray her revulsion at the stench. The day was warming and not in their favor with her in the car. Her father drove quickly, and they each experimented with the window; it was hard to tell which was more unbearable: to have them rolled down so that the scent molecules were stirred and swirled around, or to keep the windows up, where the odor was contained, and they finally settled on a combination that left each window cracked several inches.
Their passenger was getting all garrulous, even in that short distance, talking about—surprise—an unhappy relationship, a disappointing man, and now Lilly’s father was pressing the accelerator so hard that the woman, none too steady to begin with, was pinned against the backseat, pulling Gs, though still she kept talking, an occasional curse spilling from her lips followed by a surprised look in Lilly’s direction—how did this child get here?—and an overwrought apology.
They fairly skidded into the gravel parking lot of the KOA—a plume of white shell-dust, a chalky breath of old limestone, swathed their arrival, and the old couple, who were out tending their roses, looked up with mild curiosity, prepared for some level of disapproval—and Lilly’s father got out and opened the door for the woman, who was having trouble with the task. Lilly heard her father offer the woman twenty-five cents for the phone, but the woman declined, insisting with great protest that she had more than enough money for a phone call.
“Is that all you need?” Lilly’s father asked. “Are you sure you’ll be all right?” The woman now with the Chihuahua under one arm, like a purse, and the bottle in the other hand. The icy breath of the Beartooths—the mountains unobserved by the woman—and the rising lovely warmth of the day. The sound of the river.
“I’ll be fine,” she slurred. “Right as rain.” Now the hostility swooped in over her like a harrier over a marsh, and she all but snarled at Lilly’s father. With even a scornful glance in Lilly’s direction, she said, “Y’all go on with your little vacation, don’t you worry about me at all. I’ll be just hunky-dory.” The last two words took stupendous effort to pronounce, and she turned and shuffled and wove her way toward the pay phone, stopping now and again as if to ascertain whether it was retreating from her, seeming surprised, now and again, that she had not already reached it.
The old man and woman turned their hoses off and came walking over to see what the problem was.
“She is in a bad relationship,” Lilly’s father said—the truth, certainly, though also the closest Lilly would ever hear him come to telling a lie. He opened his billfold and handed the old man six twenty-dollar bills—enough for four nights’ lodging in one of their cabins, along with hot running water, and some modest amount of groceries, assuming she didn’t spend it all on beer. Lilly was surprised—flabbergasted—for they were not in the least bit rich, and it was a huge outlay for them.
“I don’t know her,” Lilly’s father said to the old man and woman, and nothing more. They saw that the woman was not making a phone call—who really would she call and what was there to say?—but was instead only leaning against the phone box, housed in the warmth of the Plexiglas shell that half-encased her, tucked in out of the wind, and Lilly and her father left before she emerged from her reverie, fearing she might hail them, might seek to lay claim with some nebulous, moral obligation, or fearing, perhaps, that they might simply have to witness more humiliation, more desperation.
Lilly for one didn’t feel at all bad about leaving her behind. She could stay and hear Martha Scanlan, could go to the barbecue. She might not get to see Yellowstone but she would be close; one never knew, it might work out somehow. And Lilly remained astounded at her father’s generosity.
They started back in the direction they had already traveled. They didn’t say anything about what had happened and it amazes Lilly now to consider that her father had the restraint and discipline to not try to put too fine a point on what they had seen. She knew—and knows—it would have been well within his rights to look over at Lilly and say even three words, Don’t drink, ever.
They drove with the windows down, the clean valley winds scouring the new green fields and washing over them, and blasting away the lingering scent of their previous occupants. They drove past her car, which was still smoldering slightly, and then, not much farther down the road, her father got excited and pulled into the grass. At first Lilly had no idea why, thinking—fearing—he had spied another stranded motorist, another pilgrim. But instead he handed her the binoculars from the backseat and pointed out a yellow-headed blackbird not far from the road. The bird was in a clump of cattails in a sunken little wetland, where a few dairy cattle stood hock-deep, and beside which old metal barrels and an abandoned tractor rusted back down into squalor, while just upslope, a dingy mobile home perched so crookedly on an irregular stacking of cinder blocks that it appeared a single gust of wind, or even the wrong movement by one of the inhabitants, could send the trailer sliding down into the black-water pond—two white PVC pipes jutted from the earthen bank above the pond, no doubt overflow for various effluents—but it was the shocking beauty of the bird, with its incredible yellow head and boisterous, exuberant singing, head thrown back and trilling to the blue sky, having survived the storm, which fixed their attention.
“Would you look at that,” her father kept exclaiming, handing her the binoculars so that she could see the bird’s beauty close-up, and then, moments later, asking for them back, wanting to see it again—then growing more excited again, and passing them back to her, while the bird sang on and on.
A grizzled middle-aged man, probably no older than her father, but much worse for the wear, came out onto the porch, unnerved by their scrutiny, and Lilly began to imagine all the days that might have been that led him to this place—this downward slide, this destitution, this rendezvous with and embrace of failure.
What would it be like, to be him—the man in the stained T-shirt, porch-staggered and blinking groggily at the bright sunlight? It was only her own victory of being loved deeply that allowed her the luxury of such indulgent imaginings, such frightful considerations of slumber, detachment, escape.
They waved to the man—he did not wave back—and drove on, farther, through a gauntlet of the sleeping and storm-stunned, the unseeing, as if through ruminants standing in a field, awaiting the ax. She saw more pilgrims, some local residents and others tourists like themselves, traveling toward a landscape they had surely heard described as fantastic. They drove past them. Her father had something he wanted to show her, he said, a fantastic land of geysers and bears, ocher cliffs and cascading waterfalls, burbling mud pots and hot springs: a fantastic land, he said, something that she would remember always.
There was only one main road leading to the park, but he seemed tentative, kept looking at side roads as if lost, or unsure whether memories were attached to those stem-roads or not. He was wondering, she thinks now, if there were important or interesting stories at the end of each side road, and maybe he was trying—or bluffing—to remember things about them, even from the main road.
The blackbird had been good. It had been like fresh air through an open window after a long time of stifling air.
There was no way for him to tell her then in words the truth that he had to have been discovering each day: that to be isolate is better than to be numb, if it comes down to a choice. That even forgetting might be all right, eventually, after a long enough time.
She remembers stopping at the stone archway outside the park, so that they could take their picture: him setting the camera up on the hood, pressing the self timer, then running quickly to join her. Huffing, when he got there, having sprinted into the wind, as if into the past. His arm tight around her. How vast our brains must be, she thinks now, to remember even such tiny and essentially useless and fleeting things. How dare anyone sleep through even a moment of it?