Post Road Magazine #13

Down in the Valley

Kevin Lutz

I was eighteen sitting in the oversized chair of a doctor’s office. She reclined in her leather chair, legs crossed at the ankles, tips of her sensible shoes tapping the carpet. My father sat in a couch at the back of the room, almost twenty feet across the sunfilled office. Out the window there was a tree in a planter where a pair of birds hopped between branches. Their breasts were red in the afternoon sun.

The doctor had a folder spread out in front of her, manila with a silver clasp. She was clicking a pen against her teeth. Her hair bounced when she shifted in the chair. She stared at me without blinking. She believed I had something wrong with my brain. There was a stack of sample prescription boxes on the corner of her desk and my eyes darted to the brightly colored boxes whenever she turned to write in the folder. She pointed at one of the boxes and mentions weekly liver enzyme tests. Pointed at another and mentioned fatigue, sexual dysfunction, and a constant fever. Sweats. She held up the last box and described hallucinogenic sleep, fuzzy memories, and personality loss—nothingness — the Zen of pharmacotherapy. The room was quiet except for the sound of air pushing through the overhead register. My father sat silently behind me, and even though I didn’t look at him, I could feel him there, as if his breath were on my neck.

“This condition is primarily acquired through heredity,” her voice penetrated the haze, and the second I heard it I started pouring over lists of names and incidents of bizarre behavior in hopes of learning who had been hiding this from me. Maybe my father was too stoic, my mother too cheerful. The bonded double helixes inside me were moving, conspiring, millions of them, copying this mysterious single strand of information thousands of time every second. Filing the copies in cells that made up my heart, my hands, my eyes, and my brain. There was no way I could stop them.

“Do you have a history of mental illness in your family?” Her voice was toneless, but polite.

I stopped thinking. I decided to stare at the ceiling and trace the dips in the tiny mountains of plaster until the hour was over.

“He cries like my mother did.” My father’s voice was deep and soft. “Sometimes until he throws up.”

In eighteen years, it was the first time I had ever heard him say the words, “my mother.”

*

Vera died seventeen days before I was born, but I managed to learn the slim smile that stretched like a teardrop from the corner of her mouth. I had always thought it made me look clever, before I knew the smile wasn’t even mine, not knowing it had been pinned across the face of a woman long dead. Dead. She died on a November afternoon in 1976, Scranton, North Dakota, a pinpoint of a town scarred by stripmine pits. Winter’s thin gray film coated buildings and car windows. Fragile lines of snow stuck to brown blades of grass huddling against cinder block foundations. The snow was gray, the houses and cars were gray—the whole world sprayed hastily with dull gray primer. Then the late afternoon sun split the clouds. It was sunset, one of those Northern Plains sunsets that made the sky look as if it were a gasoline fire. She set a bag of groceries on the roof of her car. The sun on her face peeled back the melancholy and colored her skin red and peach—the color of a dissected mango. She lifted the groceries from the car and looked towards the sun. She turned. She squinted. She didn’t notice her car beginning to roll, didn’t notice the parking break had failed until the car had pinned her against the frame and dragged her away.

Six years passed in a medicinal haze. Hospitals. Medication wrapped me in a thin blanket—fatigue. I drifted to sleep.

After six years sleeping I woke up in my parents’ basement, digging through a box of forgotten memorabilia—scrapbooks, pictures, old swimsuits, and dusty blankets. It was my new treatment regimen. Remembering. Below flat stacks of school pictures were my first winter coat, my first swimsuit, and my favorite baby blanket—rough, orange, and looking like it had been stolen from a cheap motel. Below the blanket was a teddy bear wearing my old red, white, and blue jumper. I had gone through the same cedar chest dozens of times, pushed aside bronze shoes and outgrown coats, just things then, things that had once been attached to a sentiment that was long forgotten.

Entombed deep amongst layers of sentimental debris was a cardboard box, crushed corners and waterdamaged lid. I cradled the sagging bottom with my arm and placed it under one of the overhead lights. Inside were old records, balls of newsprint, a watch, a child’s tooth in a yellowing envelope, and a lock of my father’s hair in an appropriately labeled envelope, the strands so fine they felt like corn silk. I pulled out an envelope labeled “Diploma,” let the black leather cover fall loosely back and looked at the document inside. Written on the black “insert name here” line, in stark black calligraphy, were slanted letters spelling out “Vera Lillian Richardson.”

My father had never remembered his mother’s death. He had never mentioned it. The moment had been trapped, held motionless like a prehistoric bug in a drop of amber. There was not a single picture of her anywhere in our house. He had kept her to himself, stored her deep within the stockroom of memory, stacked between the halfremembered name of a childhood friend and the misplaced recollection of what song was on the radio the first time he took the car out alone. The washedout light of a doctor’s office shook it loose. We rode home in silence. The sunlight on his pale skin revealed the cracks on his hands. The gray in his hair was white.

Heredity doesn’t require memory. As hard as he tried not to remember her, my genes were remembering. The modern version of destiny. Vera had bullied her way into my thoughts, my sleep, my hands, and my eyes. She was making me ragged and tired. I was becoming purely emotional. I was beginning to remind him of his mother.

In the dark basement I sat listlessly in front of the box. Pushing at the lid were two weighty masses, each the size of a ripe cantaloupe, swathed in newspaper. They emitted a warm, hollow sound as I set them on the floor. Each was tied with a single strand of blue ribbon. I bit through the knots, pressing my face into the newspaper that smelled of mold and dirt.

Beneath the paper were two porcelain animals, a cow and horse, features exaggerated in the style of 1930s cartoons. They were the type of mementos most people cast off in time, littering rummage sales and thrift store shelves. The middle of the horse’s back was broken, revealing the powdery lining of its skin.

It was early evening and my father was reading the newspaper at the kitchen table. The light was on, but it was not yet dark. The window was open to the sound of distant lawnmowers. It was late spring and the light was beginning to linger on the horizon. A juice glass with two fingers of blended whiskey sat next to him on the table. He was wearing a shirt and tie, cuffs buttoned at the wrists.

I set the figurines on the table and it took him several seconds to look up from the paper. I watched his eyes slowly move from one animal to the other. Then, as if suddenly realizing something desperate, his face turned shocked and somewhat hurt. His eyes narrowed and cheeks tightened, compressing his fine, gray whiskers. He looked at the figurines as if they were something conjured from a dream. Holding the cow gingerly, he pursed his lips and then pushing them out, as if blowing someone a kiss. It was what he did when he was upset. His eyes closely examined the cow and it looked back up at him with its painted, bedroom eyes—staring at it the way you would at a person. My father had spent his life believing that loss, if forgotten, would never congeal into pain. As he placed the figurines back on the table, a crystalline look of wonder on his face, I felt guilty for helping him realize that this wasn’t true.

The morning of her seventh birthday is a Saturday. It is cold and sunny. Vera’s father, Harvey, hands her a small cardboard box wrapped in brown packing paper and tied with a bow of bailing wire. He knows the gift is lavish, costing almost twice what he can afford, but it is his youngest daughter’s birthday, so he pushes the guilt down inside him, into his abdomen, a great empty space below his last rib. It is where he forces every feeling he doesn’t know what to do with. This morning, the space feels swollen and bloated. It feels full.

She turns and shows him the figurines, as if he has not yet seen them. He is looking through them, deep into some buried place within the earth. His eyes often looked that way. Painted. Absent. She pretends not to notice. Her fingers slide over the smooth porcelain, catching the detail with the ridges of the fingertips. She does not notice her mother walk back into the kitchen. She doesn’t hear her mother grumbling under her breath. Mesmerized by the fragile animals standing perfectly still in front of her, she sees only the reflection of the morning sun off the china figurines and the strange face her father is making as he rubs the corners of his cracked lips.

Vera sets the figurines aside and tries to make her face look like her father’s. She raises one corner of her mouth, tightens her lips, and squints her eyes. Thumbs in her belt loops, she staggers around the room, her gait long and steps as loud and forceful as she can make them. She sets her eyes hard into his, their faces so close she can smell the sweet warmth of whiskey on his breath and cigarette smoke in his hair. His translucent whiskers rub against her cheek. She turns away from his deep laugh just in time to see the explosion of white light and hear the flash bulb pop.

The picture was a muddy blackandwhite wallet print. Scrawled on the back in smudged black ink are two words: “Seventh Birthday.” Four months later the carnival came to town. It was the same type of rinkydink, fivetruck carnival that rambled over the Great Plains every summer. Sunday morning, it is said a lowslung fog clung to the valley and hillsides. The type of fog that is always there in the memories of events that the rememberer wishes could be taken back and recast. That morning when the trucks pushed through the fog, Harvey went with them. He had fallen in love with the tattooed woman. Sitting next to her he watched his town, his house, and his family disappear into the fog. He would never come back.

The box of Vera’s things had never been opened. When I uncovered it the lid was still bound in amber packing tape. Tape that had been new when his brother silently shoved it into my father’s arms only two days after they had buried their mother. It had been packed away, tucked into the recesses of closets and memories, unlabeled, and forgotten. My father had spent three decades trying to forget her death, but as he ran his finger around the break in the horse’s back, the ridges of his fingerprints gathering the fine, white powder, I knew it would be something he would never be able to forget again.

We had always been awkward mourners. We were better at forgetting. But we weren’t forgetting. Memories weren’t being erased, they were just going deeper, burrowing, creating tunnel systems that crisscrossed our insides, leaving us internally porous—as brittle as bird bones.

The record wobbled as it started spinning and the stylus nearly left the waxed surface at each crest. The records had been stored on their sides in a cool dry place, neatly pressed into the sides of the box, which meant they were damaged before their internment. I did not know why someone would save such badly damaged records, but I kept it in mind as I lay on the floor of my parents’ basement listening to the first pops of static get picked up by the stylus, rising and falling like a cork on the ocean.

The delicate static sounded like someone breathing. A woman began to sing, building in volume and power with each successive revolution. The voice was a dead ringer for Patsy Kline, and I started to believe I was listening to a Patsy Kline record, even though the recording was thin and tinny. Distant. Garbled. The voice as faint as wind pushing under a closed door. Given the amount of recording noise, the volume had to be almost full. I lit a cigarette and exhaled through a dryer sheet to disguise the smell, closed my eyes, and tried to concentrate on the song that was beginning to sound vaguely familiar, a rhythm just beyond the reach of memory. Memory.

One of the only memories of his mother my father had ever shared was laying in bed listening to her sing along with Patsy Kline, her voice carried up through the heating ducts by the cigarette smoke. As he told it, his face became so sincere that it looked as if that moment were still within reach, as if he could tuck himself back into the same halfdreamt song.

Most memories are triggered by sound or smell.

The smoke curled out the heating register and caught his nose, carrying his mother’s voice singing a familiar song. The streetlight broke through a crack in the blinds like a searchlight. He was seven years old again, coated in the residue of evaporated sweat.

The hollow suburban floors creaked under his irregular steps. Longshort, longshort. A reconstructed knee had made this sound his signature. It was two in the morning. Yellow lamplight painted the warshipgray floor as he cracked the door. I hadn’t been sleeping well and the light made my eyes feel swollen, pulsing like faulty neon signs.

My father had spent years garnering a reputation as an austere and nononsense man. He carried all his strength in his eyes and jaw. He had come across the look honestly, but as he walked down the stairs and stepped into the light his face looked somehow boyish. He crossed the room without looking directly at me and positioned himself over a pillow left on the floor. He pushed his back into the wall, and gripping his knee, lowered himself to the floor. His body was much used, and whatever grace he had once possessed had been worn away, lowering his body to the ground like a branch breaking under a heavy snow.

He was silent for almost a full minute.

“I haven’t heard this song in 45 years.” His mouth was stretched in a halfsmile that didn’t look like a smile at all.

“Didn’t you used to sing this to me?”

“You remember that? You were pretty young.”

“I think so, or maybe mom told me the song and I imagined it in your voice.”

“You and mom talk about what I used to sing to you?” His voice sounded more touched than angry.

“Yeah,” I paused,” I guess we do.”

Whatever questions were left in this line of reasoning remained unasked. It wasn’t our custom. We listened to the rest of the song in silence, and when it ended, I started the records over, the pops of static filling the quiet place between us.

The recording was Vera singing the standard Birmingham Jail, a song she had sung to her children and a song my father had sung to me. Even through the hazy static, her voice sounded thick and sure of itself, shifting through notes like swimming in motor oil. Her voice melted into the static. Maybe it was because I was sitting so close to my father listening to his dead mother sing as though she were alive, but it felt as if we were listening to a ghost.

The song ended and the record player’s arm returned to its cradle. I flipped through the thin stack of dusty records and pulled out a powder blue 55. The seveninch record had bonded with its browning, paper sleeve and the handwritten label had tattooed its mirror image onto the paper. It read, “Tuddy—Three Little Bears.” Tuddy is what Vera called my father, for reasons no one can fully explain.

I fitted the record with a 55 adapter and flipped the switch. The record spun six complete revolutions before a boy’s voice tentatively began in the forced, monotone voice of a child reading. He was telling the story of the three little bears, taking long pauses and certain creative liberties with the story. The voice was so nervous and tentative that I had a hard time connecting it to the man. The boy had trouble with the word “porridge” and a woman’s voice prodded him along. My father had been leaning against the wall with his eyes closed, but the moment he heard her voice he sat up and his eyes opened. The quality of the recording and her distance from the microphone made it hard to understand what she was saying. I picked up the stylus, moved it out a circle, and dropped it half a dozen times. “Tell the story Tuddy. . .Tell the story Tuddy.” I forgot I wasn’t alone and let the record run. The boy laughed a fit of bubbles. Bursting. The woman laughed and my father’s gaze stretched across the room and through the wall without focusing. It was a shift imperceptible to anyone else, but I had been studying him for years, and the change in his face looked so deep and so thoughtful, that as Vera continued to talk I tried to imagine what great things were moving inside of him.

That’s the thing about recordings; they will catch you off guard. You can train yourself to see certain things in pictures—a pose, the look on the person’s face, the style of clothes—that allow you to separate yourself from the picture. But a voice on a recording will always sound the same. Sounds trigger recollection, and before you can stop yourself, you remember the smell of lavender soap on her hands and the smell of smoke in her hair. Before you know it you are four years old again and your mother is teaching you to read. You realize that you have forgotten to breathe—you are deflated.

My father, halfasleep, leaning against the arm of the couch. I peered though the cracked door. Late evening left the room dark. Fading sunlight gave way to a single lamp casting the shadow of the lampshade across his face. His sweatshirt was pulled over his nose—something he did when he was falling asleep—and his head bobbed towards his chest, came erect, then bobbed again. The drama of the revelation had vanished, this being the thirteenth such trip upstairs, leaving his face bored and a bit irritated as the items’ quality had deteriorated to broken picture frames and unremarkable vinyl placemats.

I stood in the doorway for a moment, watching the careful rhythm of his breathing in the rise and fall of his chest, before stepping into the room. I leaned into him, so close I could smell his skin. The wrinkles around his eyes lookedlike the tracks birds leave in the sand. I set a wooden box in the lamp’s circle of light. The wood’s grain swirled dark and light and the lid was affixed to the box with a small, brass hinge. The box was the size of a navel orange.

I stepped away from him and cleared my throat loudly.

He was half asleep so it took him several seconds to focus his eyes on me, then the box. His face turned serious and heavy, the lines beneath his eyes being pulled down by gravity. With narrowed eyes he seemed to be looking inside me, taking an arthroscopic look into my chest. He had drifted back into his memories again, the weight evident in the tightened muscles around his jaw.

“Where did you find this?” He looked me in the eyes for the first time.

“Downstairs in that box of Vera’s things.” I always called her Vera.

There was a long stretch of broken TV dialogue as he flipped through the channels.

“This is the only thing left inside,” I said, knocking two polished grains into my hand. “I don’t think they are salt.”

A crooked smile crossed his face, but his eyes still looked sad and hard.

“I didn’t think Jerry saved that. I told him to throw it away.”

“Why would you throw it away? It doesn’t seem you were selective at all with what you saved. Remember the place mats?”

“I told Jerry I didn’t want it.”

He paused again, but this time he muted the volume. The first drop of an evening drizzle washed away the smell of freshcut grass. I was sitting only three feet away from him, but we were both looking at each other’s reflection in the sliding glass door.

“She used it as her pill box.”

“What kind?” I was interested. I once had a fondness for pills.

“Barbiturates. Sedatives. Sometimes uppers, but not often, they made her nose bleed.”

“Why did she,”—reconsidering—“what was wrong with her?”

The lampshade still hid his eyes, his face made stoic by the silence.

“She thought her life was going to drown her.”

The TV’s volume rose, signaling the end of the conversation. A fine mist looked like it had settled on his hard cut eyes, though I knew he would not cry. I sat there staring at him for another minute, but he couldn’t bring himself to look at me. He was trying not to remember that I had said the same thing only a year earlier.

Vera is home from the bar by 8:30 P.M. and the boys are sleeping in their street clothes. She is wearing a peach dress to offset the overcast day. It is winter and dark. It is 9:00 as she stands drying the dishes. She is holding a juice glass up to the single bare light bulb when she feels the heat in the air around her. It always began with the heat, and for that first second she never realizes it is her body heating the air. A cold sweat covers her body. She feels sick. She feels electric.

The house is quiet. She is the only one awake and if she holds her breath she can feel the house shifting uneasily on its foundation.

By her third glass of whiskey she is sitting and staring at the kitchen table trying to think of something ordinary. Secretly, she knows it is too late. She can feel the restlessness in her hands and feet, in her shoulders, and somewhere deep down inside of herself she cannot locate. She presses her fingers into her ribs. She pours another glass of whiskey hoping if she gets drunk enough she could get depressed and maybe that would knock her down.

She is drinking straight from the bottle by the time the door swings open and he walks in. His boots leave snow tracks in the shape of treads over her freshly swept floor. She starts screaming. She doesn’t know what she is saying but she is screaming. She hates him. She could kill him. She takes a deep breath and smells the beer and cigarettes on him. The pungent stink of his oilsoaked clothes. Before she knows what is happening she feels herself run out the door and lunge into a snow bank. She presses her face into the snow and thinks about each frozen drop of water still trapped in the moment they turned their faces to the wind. A minute passes and she can feel the cold in her hands and legs as she walks back into the kitchen. Her skin is bright red. She pulls the wooden box he gave her for Valentine’s Day from the top of the fridge, pushes back the lid, and taps four tiny pills into her hand. She swallows them without water, looking at the ceiling with swollen eyes.

Curls fall over her broken chinadoll face as she leans back into the couch. Her body grinds to a stop. She feels slow and languid, as if she were in someone else’s body. Little fingers weave through her own and a small pair of lips press against her arm as the small body burrows into her leg. She sighs, a breath so heavy that as it leaves her she feels as if she is floating.

I returned to the basement, flipped through stacks of photographs, and thought of my father and all the things he would never tell me. I let my finger mindlessly trace the box’s detail. My father sat alone, watching television late into the night. His irregular steps seemed slower, filtered through my own guilt. I was beginning to realize the past is heavy. Memory has a tangible weight, measured in tons.

We were taking our first, uncertain steps into the recesses of our own hearts. He only spoke of her when he was forced or to compare her to me. I cried like she did. I smiled like she did. I said things she used to say.

My father left home when he was eighteen. It wasn’t his home anyway. She would call late, as night becomes morning, when the moon is already gone, but the sun is not yet up. He would be sleeping. She would be crying into the phone, her voice coming through as gasps that sounded like static in the line.

He is sleeping—dreaming about cars, or girls, or football or whatever it is nineteenyearold boys see when they are asleep. He sleeps heavily and doesn’t hear the phone ring until his roommate shakes the bed frame. They sleep in bunk beds. He carries the phone into the apartment’s only other room. It is dark and smells of stale crackers. He is only wearing boxer shorts and a tank top so he feels the chill of the linoleum as he sits on the floor, back pressed into the dark laminate of the kitchen cupboards.

“Mom,” he whispers so he doesn’t wake up his three roommates. He can tell she is crying. She is always crying when she calls so late.

“Tuddy,” she says, “are you sleeping?”

All he can hear in her voice is the seizurelike stirring of her breath as she tries not to break into sobs—the involuntary contractions of the abdomen tying her stomach into intricate knots.

“No, I’ve been awake for almost an hour,” he says in a voice still husky with sleep.

“Tuddy,” pregnant pause, “I’m tired of feeling like this.”

“I know,” he says as she breaks into fiery sobs.

If he listens hard enough, he thinks he can hear her stomach retching, turning itself inside out. His eyes trace the cabinet’s dark stain without seeing anything. He feels the darkness openup behind him and, for a moment, thinks it might swallow him whole.

These phone calls continued for years. Every night for a week, then nothing for months. Even when she didn’t call, the night seemed restless. His sleep became fragmented, his eyes tired. He had strange dreams, nightmares, night terrors, sleepwalking, and sleeprunsintothestreetwearingthebedding. In his 50s they called it apnea, even though the word repression sat bitterly on the tips of our tongues.

You’d figure that when she died and the calls stopped he would finally start sleeping. He didn’t. Everything got worse. Nightmares became panic attacks. Night sweats became heart palpitations. Sleepwalking became insomnia. Insomnia.

It was late but his voice was lucid and calm—practiced. I was eighteen and had only been out of the house a couple of months. I was on the roof of my apartment building wrapped in a blanket, phone cord stretched to its full length. It was a moonless night and the starlight winked as specks of quartz. He told me I cried like a disciple. He would say the same thing, in similar late night calls for years to come.

For how much silence existed in our relationship, these calls filled with misery, anxiety, and terror were profoundly intimate. But once they were over everything that was said was never mentioned again. He was able to cleave these moments clean from the surrounding time and swallow, if not digest, them. It had always been a peculiarity of his personality, his ability to separate an instant in time from the rest of his life and never let it visibly affect him. Or was it all fragments? A goldfish with an eightsecond emotional memory.

We dream so that all the garbage we pack into our head can come out. It is a zero sum game. No one is sturdy enough to keep it down forever.

When my father was in his early 50s, his doctor sent him to a sleep clinic. The clinic kicked him out at three in the morning because he couldn’t stay asleep long enough to achieve betawave sleep—the long waves, when the subconscious runs the show. He laid in the adjustable bed in dress pants and a buttonup shirt so his getaway didn’t take long.

Why, in my own latenight calls, didn’t he tell me his mother had done the same thing? That I had mastered my imitation of her. Why, in those almost profanely intimate moments, didn’t he say, “When I was your age my mom would call me about this time of night and tell me she wanted to die?” But would I want to hear it? Would I want to hear that he too had something evil eating his heart?

After all the digging, remembering, counseling, and interrogating, there was something left that I had to understand on my own. A finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself. Inside of me, in the microscopic recesses of my own genes, was part of a dead woman that was haunting me, that was hunting me, that was trying to kill me. I was going to have to drag her out by myself.

On an unusually humid June night in Nebraska, my father helped me pack my car. When I was in the house packing he checked my oil and the tire pressure. He pressed his face into the rubber to survey the tread. He lay on his back and checked the exhaust system. When I was first born he slept next to my crib to make sure I was still breathing. As he stood there in the stark white garagelight it was clear he was having a hard time letting go of both of us.

The next morning in the predawn glow, I pointed the car north across the dewcovered grassland and sighed. My own exhaled breath gave no relief. I was beginning to think that maybe fate wasn’t written in the stars or in genetic disposition but in an account of how she survived so long, in the vacuous blackness that held the stars in place.

Vera grew up in Havelock, North Dakota, on the bitter edge of the badlands, where the short grass reaches down into narrowmouthed canyons. She was born where the cool night and spring heat turn whispers into rain clouds, footsteps into thunderstorms. She was conceived in a place where there are few second chances, born to parents who would need more than two.

Embalmed with stale gas station coffee, I reached the North Dakota border at sunset. Twelve hours on the road, I had spent the last three giving it all back—road signs, billboards, rest areas, and restaurants. The only thing left was the road that bent with the distant curvature of the earth and the sound of allseason radials on the cooling asphalt. The vacuous prairie was startling, even after only two years absence, memory’s fickle nature choosing to note only adjectives and catch phrases, damn the rest.

It had been two years since I traveled this same road with my father to bury his father. It was winter then, the cold wind sucking each breath from my throat. Suffocating, the world frozen stiff, like burying him underwater.

Spring had turned the sky orange and purple. The silhouette of fence posts, anklehigh grass, and hills inked the horizon as woodcut prints. Roads signs were covered in silver, dimpled bullet holes made by deer hunters for target practice. The “O” in “NO PASSING” shot completely out, save a twisted knuckle of bare metal.

The nearest motel was 65 miles southwest of Havelock—three cinderblock bunkers huddled around a gravel parking lot. The room cost $22 and smelled of mold, sweat, and stale cigarette smoke. The TV dial rolled through 14 channels of static. Out the window, beyond the parking lot and highway weigh station, was a field filled with sparsely illuminated rye stalks. Storm clouds made a starless night and filled the darkness with the sound of windows rattling in their wooden frames. The quick, percussive knocking became thunder, then rain against the window. The waning heat was exhaled and replaced by a thin coolness. Lightning strikes revealed the curtains’ hidden stains. I slept on the bedding, fully clothed.

The morning smelled of wet grass. The deep potholes in the parking lot were filled with chalky water. I spent forty minutes on the phone with my father trying to decipher the cryptic directions he had scribbled on the back of an envelope. Havelock was such a small town that modern cartographers have had great difficulty finding its exact location, or had decided that accurately representing six dilapidated buildings swimming in a wheat field was of little significance. Havelock either sat alone, unconnected to anything or anywhere, an island amongst the spirally dirt roads, or it sat at the intersection of thick red lines, at the crossroads of unbending rural highways. Both of which, my father assured me, were untrue.

I headed north along highway 67. Seventy milesperhour past my grandfather’s fresh grave, the residue of a thunderstorm on the highway —tears, sweat, and oil. Orange sun flares dissipated by water droplets on the windshield. Through squinted eyes the bare highway rose and fell over mountains eroded into hills.

On the highway between Reeder and New England, you can stop your car and leave it parked in the lane without concern for other vehicles. Only the clouds were moving. I spread the map out on the warm hood and tried to make out the notes I penciled throughout Hettinger County.

Highway 22 runs the 35 miles to New England without flinching. Engrossed in the map, eyes wandering down the faint blue ink of Coal Bank creek, I didn’t notice the swather headed south until I heard the throaty diesel engine behind me.

“You lost son?” The man leaned out of the phone boothlike cab.

“I’m looking for Havelock.” I squinted, the sun behind him concealing his features.

“There ain’t a Havelock no more.” He shifted, white light emitting from behind his shoulder. “Maybe some bricks left up there. They trucked those shacks out years ago.”

“Do you know where it was?”

“Up the road there are two Holstein ranches. There’s a gravel road that runs between them. Follow that road for about ten miles, where it turns hard left, and you’ll be in Havelock.”

I thanked him and he chuckled, shifting the machine back into gear with the sound of metal on hollow metal.

I looked back at the map and traced the highway’s path north, read the names of roads that nobody knew or used. I put my finger on the field full of deep cow tracks I stood next to and was a bit ashamed—I had forgotten the language of the landscape.

The hillsides were littered with rusted and abandoned farm equipment from fields turned to pastures. Cows grazed along the tracks of an eightyyearold thresher. Wooden fence posts bleached white by the elements, cracked, barely able to hold onto three strands of mudbrown barbed wire.

After 11.7 miles the road took a hard left, leaving grownover tire tracks to continue in their stead. I stepped from the car and the green and brown underbellies of grasshoppers peppered my face. There was nothing left of Havelock except the intersection of two unused roads. I stared into the heart of the silence and tried to comfort myself with the fact that not everything in life had to be meaningful.

For what Havelock had become there is not a proper word—the way a body becomes a corpse. Ruins without the majesty. Scattered piles of bricks at the intersection of two dirt roads connecting nowhere to nothing. Five square lots outlined by poplar trees—asymmetrical blocks of cement catching the yellows and oranges of the lateday sun. I stepped into the street and kicked up a curl of dust.

Havelock was hard to find, even using a map. The dirt road that had once connected it to the highway had seen little use since the buildings worth moving were heaved onto trucks and shipped away. The road was unmarked and overgrown, only appearing as a break in the fence line. Twelve miles down the dirt road where Havelock had been, once edged by small family farms, now remained only two large Holstein ranches.

Havelock was once a small town, next to a small lignite coal mine, surrounded by four small wheat farms. The dusty path I stood on then was where my grandparents had met over sixty years earlier. Vera had grown up in the patchwork fields. Now gone, all of them—a full dandelion emptied into the wind.

The day she died Vera had cold cereal for breakfast because she had run out of eggs. A fresh carton lay open at the foot of the driveway, shells cracked, when her body was found.

On a longforgotten recording let loose in a damp basement, Vera’s voice sang without a slip. I remembered my father’s voice touching the same notes.

Roses love sunshine, Violets love dew
Angels in heaven, They know I love you
They know I love you, They know I love you
Angels in heaven, They know I love you

*

Every perfect memory is embedded with environmental, emotional, and internal details. It is a model of a single moment. If this memory could be extracted and presented, it would be an exact recreation of a moment. A life made up of perfect memories would be actualized; it would give everything a context.

No memories are perfect. Details disappear one second after they are noticed. Standing in front of the bar’s opaque, unmarked door, trying to resurrect twenty years of absence, I remembered only dark wood, Merle Haggard, and the sickly sweet smell of wet hay on my jacket. All these were just flashes—hallucinogenic—fuzzy photographs, flash cards seen for only half a second.

This particular bar sat in the bend of an unnamed road as it ran into South Dakota without shifting again. Growing up a dozen miles to the west, I could see the corrugated steel quancets, the old farm houses, the bare wood exposed from peeling paint—all hidden then behind the hills that swelled across the horizon. The past hunkered down, breathing quietly, concealing itself in the valley of shadow—the darkness of all the details time had ripped away.

The bar had aged the way an old man does. Its skin had lost its luster, the dark wood looked more brittle than waxed. The lights were dusty and no longer cast the romantic tipless triangles of light. The whole place looked sickly—its shape shifted from a long rectangular hall, to a squat, square room.

This bar, like most places in Southwestern North Dakota, had a defined life cycle. Most of us expected to outlive the landmarks of our youth. After long, there really was no going back.

The bar was empty except for an old man at the end of the bar wearing overalls and an oilstained, plaid shirt. He didn’t look up from his can of beer. A woman behind the bar wiped glasses with a tattered dishrag.

I tried to remember the last time I had been there, almost twenty years gone, eating burnt, frozen pizza and watching my friend’s hired man get drunk at the bar. He was Swedish and his broken English always came out muffled. He talked like a man missing his tongue. He was leaning on the bar laughing, drinking, and shouting in what I assumed was Swedish. He was driving us back to my friend’s house, twenty miles down the same unnamed gravel road, and I cringed every time he raised the little glass to his mouth and tossed back his head, the clear liquid disappearing somewhere in the fluidity of the motion—an alcoholic magic act. I tried to remember Merle Haggard on the jukebox or the smell of wet hay, but none of it seemed authentic. It felt as if I had never been there before, all my recollections failing to metastasize into palpable memories.

Vera loved to perform. During the late 50s she played the accordion and sang in every bar, county fair, or grain coop within a hundred miles. Being ninetyseven miles from her front door, this bar sat at the far reaches of her accordion kingdom.

Thirty years after she had last played there, I watched the waitress slowly round the bar and painfully make her way across the uneven floorboards. Her eyes were narrowed through her owleyed glasses, the slim smile of pain on her face as she gripped her knee, throwing her weight past the immovable pivot.

I had a picture of Vera standing on a makeshift stage in the corner of that very bar. On the back, written in fading black ink is the simple notation, “Me 1954.” The same tin Hamms beer sign still hung on the wall. My father had told me Vera was a minor celebrity in the small town bars that pepper the southwest quarter of the state, and people still spoke of her with a nostalgic reverence.

After I ordered I decided to ask the woman if she remembered Vera.

“No, I never head anything about anyone playing the accordion in here before,” she paused, her eyes rolledup—the reflex of memory. “That is of course unless someone got drunk and brought one in. Something like that sure could have happened. Things like that used to happen all the time around here.”

I clarified that this would have been a scheduled performance.

“No. No. No.” She said, shaking her head emphatically, as if in the midst of epileptic tremors.

I asked about the possibility of a stage.

“Nope, never been a stage either.” She sounded almost offended at the suggestion. “I think they had music over Flasher, but I can’t say for sure. Folks around here really don’t go in for that sort of thing. Sit and drink. That is what these folks prefer.”

I thanked her. She apologized for not being more helpful, patted the table with her fingers spread, and hobbled back to the bar.

I laid the picture of Vera on the table and looked at the wall behind her. Like matching fingerprints I matched knots in the wood, the peculiar holes in the window’s molding, the portion of missing mopboard. Points of similarity. The photograph was degraded and the composition offcenter, but holding the photo at arm’s length, I was able to line it up with reality, eyes tracing the slanted floor to Vera singing in the corner.

The songs never stopped. She would just play a string of C chords to segue between songs. If she stopped, or even paused long enough, someone would yell a request or dedication. She wasn’t in the mood. By the seventh song her fingers are tired, which she feels as an aching deep in her joints. The leather straps crisscrossing her back are cutting her skin and bunching her dress at the shoulders. She leans back and lets the weight rest on her hips as she watches her son, who is sitting at the corner of the stage, hold a bottle of soda pop up to the light and watch the bubbles rise through the dark liquid. The pressed notes take on the rhythm of the bubbles. They are created in the negative space of her thoughts, rising and dissolving, the notes seeming to effervesce. The chorus starts like lightly boiling water. She assures herself other people think this way too. There is nothing wrong with her.

In the back of the room a man taps his oval belt buckle with the inside of his wedding ring and during the halfseconds of silence she can imagine the clicking, hearing it lagging behind the tempo. Through the haze created by the yellow light and cigarette smoke she can just make out a couple shyly dancing, thinking no one sees them, moving their hips as if they were an outofbalance tire—the rhythm affecting just the lower halves of the bodies. An old ranch hand sitting at a table against the wall drains a tumbler of dark liquid with a quick jerk of his head. He looks for the waitress and raises three fingers. There are three empty glasses on the table in front of him. He raises his face and she sees the crystal clarity of his green eyes floating in the yellowing whites. She sees in his eyes what she recognizes in her own—a sinister, chemical wisdom.

Her fingers slide on the wet keys and she presses a flat note, which comes out sounding like an exploding goose. She starts to worry she had ruined their lives.

The mind wanders.

The flat note drew his attention from the barely translucent liquid through which he was watching his mother’s feet dance in tight circles. It looks like she is kicking invisible rabbits, he thinks, but then tries to stop himself from having this thought or any like it. She always wore heels, thick rectangular stumps inaudibly clicking against the poorly made stage. Her white nylons catching the light, reflecting, sparkling, becoming unseen as his eyes focus through the dark liquid again. Her body abstracted in the strange, dark world.

He tries not to resent her for making him leave with her, but as he sits there he starts to think he can’t help it. She had made him give up everything, and for what? She drove so fast that night, the moonless dark so thick he couldn’t tell where they were or where they had been. They were driving together through a vacuous, empty world; nothing else existed except the faint yellow dashboard light, the cold vinyl bench seat, and the two of them. Then they stopped in front of a tractor dealership, his mother’s heels making perfect squares in the snow. There was a oneroom apartment above the sales office that they entered using a staircase on the side of the building. The windows were dark and covered in thick plastic waxed paper. He slept on the couch while his mother drank and smoked with a man he had never seen before. The hard couch cushions stiffened his neck. He wanted to go home so badly it made his stomach hurt.

But, he had often thought, they were soul mates. Not like a girlfriend, but as if anything she wanted, he wanted. Not out of loyalty or a desire to please her. It was that the instant he knew what she wanted, he would want it too, so desperately that at times he felt as if he were trying to contort himself into becoming her desires.

She bridges the songs with four single notes as she drinks from a glass that had been resting on the windowsill. She stares across the room, eyes wide and mouth open, for several seconds, her chest still, as if she is seeing something beautiful for the first time.

The microwave dinged and the owleyed woman hobbled across the room. I put the picture in my breast pocket and shifted my eyes from the empty corner to the dustcovered pool table where my best friend’s brother taught us to play nine ball. How much time had passed since then —twenty years—a quarter of a life and already it seemed less real than my own imaginings, halfremembered books, or slurred anecdotes, all working their way into my memories, seamlessly becoming parts of my life. My life, was that all it was, a seizure of images. After twenty years nearly gone, the mind had become cleansed, reborn into the same body.

The waitress placed the pizza and a can of soda on the table without a word, the corners of her mouth arched in an obligatory smile. The translucent fuzz on her face illuminated by flashes of sunlight. Her eyes scanned the table and my face in a slow arc. The room was quiet, dreamlike, and the stillness made it seem as if it were already night.

I was beginning to lose hope. I wasn’t even sure hope was the right word. If I couldn’t even let go of the idea that I had inherited something from Vera, something that had remained nameless for most of my life, how could I expect my father to talk about his own dead mother? The idea had become poisonous, the excavation became more futile with each imagined moment. I was beginning to give in to history. Maybe it wanted to be forgotten. Maybe we were the ones who were stubborn and wrongheaded. But I was worried that if we each didn’t gleam some honest view of ourselves through all of it, we would never be able to make our own way in the world. We would be forever haunted. I would just be a body feeling my dead grandmother’s sickness, and he would just be an old man trying not to remember his own young man’s sadness.

I stepped outside and the light broke the stillness into digestible shards. Sometimes I remember things, little things, like riding the school bus down this dirt road, and I cry. The early afternoon air was warm and it took several minutes for the smell of stale beer to leave my nose. When I had first arrived I had planned to visit all the places I remembered from childhood, but alongside that unbending gravel road I was disconnected from my past. Nostalgia, at that moment, seemed morbid and death obsessed. I still cannot explain, however, why remembering my own past seemed macabre, but harassing the memory of a dead woman did not.

The third verse lags at the second measure:

Build me a castle, forty feet high
So I can see her as she rides by
As she rides by love, as she rides by
So I can see her as she rides by

It glowed where the glass met the face, ivory with black lettering, dots of oily dirt clinging between the curved links. Residue. Vera’s watch was brushed silver, her wrists so thin the band barely stretched around three of my fingers. The clasp was darker, richer, like the welloiled barrel of a gun. The claps stuck as it unlocked, and no matter how many times I pulled it open it never got any easier. The whole thing was almost weightless. I liked to imagine it was saved from her accident by some serendipitous moment where she saw the watch as she was rushing out the door, looked at for only half a second, then pulled the door closed. I didn’t know if she wore it at the time, or if like so many things in her life, it had been forgotten.

I carried the watch in my pocket for weeks and often considered stealing it. I didn’t even think it would be considered stealing, I had found it and just hadn’t told anyone. I wanted one that was only mine.

The novelty of having Vera’s watch to myself took nine months to wear off, and desperate for stories to attach to it, I decided to tell my father I had found it. I kept the watch with me for several days, often clinching it in my fist as we were talking, then, feeling the emotional gravity of the object pulling at him, I would thrust it deep into my pocket.

The emotional revelation I had expected never materialized. He looked at the watch with only a vague, passing interest. His eyes did not take on the characteristic wrinkles of thoughtful expression. I had been grilling him on the meager memorabilia of his mother’s life for several days and his mind had become resistant—developed a tolerance. But holding the delicate watch in my hand as gently as if I held a crumpled piece of tissue paper, I began to realize he didn’t have to transcribe an emotional memory onto every item arbitrarily tossed into a cardboard box.

My father was able to identify the watch as belonging to his mother, but could provide little additional information. He believed she had received it from her mother as a high school graduation gift, but could not say if she had told him this information or if he had imagined it. He was not particularly interested in discussing invented memories. He remembered she did not wear if often, and could recall no specific instance of general occasion. He could only recall her wrist and the watch —all surrounding context had been long forgotten.

The night was as still as stagnant water, holding itself the way you do when you are trying not to break down. The kind of still that hurts your muscles, skin so sensitive you can feel the molecules pressing down on every pore. The night felt it too, the dark sky stretched with trembling stars. Impregnated. Everything could not have been forgotten, a whole life, something had to linger, I hoped, letting the cool, scentless air in through the window, the dull hum tires on broken asphalt filling the car.

Sometimes I imagined he thought, “You are just like her. I’m sorry.” I knew it would take more time than we had left to shake off all the dead skin.

I was headed Northwest, back into the badlands, to find Vera’s mother. The star’s brilliance were singular white points. For the one hundred and seventeen miles I passed only one other car, its lights appearing on the bluff in front of me as nothing more than stars. I was tired. I was somewhat lost. I was heating up. My thoughts twitched—pickup trucks, gravel, rabbits, dead deer—memories, all of them, maybe. I was sinking into myself and took a deep breath to stay cool. There wasn’t a payphone anywhere.

After spending the night in Bowman, in the same cinder block motel, I headed towards Dickinson in the early morning. I raised my index finger to each passing car, three pickups driven by men wearing meshbacked hats, bodies slumped against the door. A flatbed truck bounds over the hill going almost a hundred, shocks struggling against the two tons of hay stacked on the bed.

Dickinson is by no means a large city; in fact it probably isn’t even a city. Had it been anywhere else, its population of 6,000 would qualify it as another dying farm town. A relic. But in Southwestern North Dakota it is a metropolis. Growing up, I thought it must be what New York City looked like.

If death comes too quickly for some, it comes to slowly for others. At the time of my visit Sylva, Vera’s mother, was 97. She had been waiting to die since she was 70.

Sylva’s rest home was a twostory rectangle without any protrusions —no entryway, covered patios, bay windows, nooks, or crannies. It was a cracker box wrapped in aqua vinyl siding. I had only visited it once, with my father, twenty years earlier and remembered only her skin was the gray of winter goose down, and that I thought she was wearing a wig, which was orange and dressed in a fashion two decades passed. As I parked the car I tried to bring up a picture of her face, but could only manage an orange, disembodied wig floating helplessly through my thoughts.

Being an assisted living home, the building had no controlled entrance. There was a common dining area and aid station, but it was otherwise an apartment building designed exclusively for the elderly. Sylva had outlived two husbands, three children (all but one), four grandchildren, and one great grandchild. She was a dictionary of loss. Vera died when her mother was seventy. Sylva had packed away a lifetime worth of loss since. All these people had left behind other people, and as I stood in front of her door, the thin watch strap between my fingers, I wondered how many people had come to her door, discarded object in hand, hungry for any scrap of memory she had to offer. I also wondered if it was fair for me, a virtual stranger, to cannibalize the most painful and intimate moments of her life.

Sylva’s door felt hollow under my knuckles and the knocking produced a hollow sound that echoed through the vacant hallway. She looked nothing like I remembered, so little in fact, that for a moment I thought I had the wrong apartment.

“Sylva?” Her face held an expectant look of excitement and bewilderment, but she didn’t respond.

“I’m Keith’s son,” I continued. “He said he might call and tell you I was going to stop by.”

Her face remained unchanged for several seconds before she blurted out, “Tuddy, is that you.”

Before I had a chance to object, her frail arms were wrapped around me and was saying, “Tuddy, it’s so good to see you.” Her face was buried into my chest and I could not tell if she was laughing or crying.

She released her hold on me and I could feel the warmth of her face on my chest. She was laughing, her gaunt face covered in wrinkles that concealed any facial feature beneath her grayish folds of skin.

“You look so young and healthy,” she said, holding my shoulders at arms length, eyes squinted into slivers.

I resembled my father when he was my age, and as I felt her shaking hands on my shoulders, I knew I did not have the heart to tell her my father was in his midfifties.

Lives, like objects, become disassociated blurs of memories. The mind becomes a jumbled box of snapshots. In the end, memory is just pulling out a picture at random. My father at 27, hair still dark, she buries her face into his chest.

We sit in the living room, furnished with a small table and two straightback chairs. The room was otherwise empty, and while it was relatively small, without anything else in it seemed cavernous. The walls were eggshell and bare except for a bulletin board covered in neat, overlapping rows of papers and business cards. As I shifted uncomfortably in the hard, wooden chair, I began to notice the absolute lack of personal accoutrements. There were no glass owls, doily covered tables, spoon, thimble, or bell collections. The whole space was so empty it looked as if someone were midway through moving.

Sylva sipped her juice glass of water gingerly and frequently, moving her head to the glass of water, her huge eyes fixed on my face. I looked at her face intensely for quite a long time, trying to superimpose pictures of Vera over her face. Vera had aged just as her mother had—as fast as an unexpected freeze. Black hair bleached white overnight. I tried to imagine what Vera would have looked like if she had survived. It was quiet for several minutes as we sat staring at each other, two strangers, facetoface, both looking at each other but seeing someone else.

After awhile she stood and with a loose grip on my wrist guided me to the bulletin board. Her faces was slack with pain, but as she looked up at the meticulous rows of cardstock, her eyes lost the harrowing, slouching age they had been carrying. They ran up and down the rows, tenderly, the way some look at paintings of naked women, and the thick wrinkles around her mouth were just able to conceal the beginnings of a smile.

Her apartment was empty, so moving her possessions would not be a bother, yes, but also because she wanted to be found on the floor or in the bed, not tangled in a lamp or chair, found covered in broken bricabrac.

Two lines of red yarn, anchored with matching pushpins, separated the bulletin board into three sections. She pointed at each section, wagging a finger as if in admonishment. There were three sections, she said, to cover each day it will take her to get into the ground.

The business card for a funeral home that had gone out of business still hung on the board, halfcovered by card of the home that took its place. There was something beautiful in that dedication—the yellowed, halfcovered card standing testament to the plan’s ability to document its own history. Obituary drafts were neatly feathered, swaths of whiteout dotting the earlier drafts—each addendum noting another person she had outlived. In the end, this list of the survived madeup the majority of the slim listing.

Pictures of floral arrangements cut from magazines covered half of the second column, each including the note “next to pulpit,” “guest book,” or “casket.”

She explained each step several times, stressing the important items, for the better part of two hours.

In the closet next to the door was the dress she wanted to be buried in, perfectly pressed and hung in a zippered plastic bag. The closet was otherwise empty.

The bulletin board had been hanging for twenty five years, and by that time I was certain she had made everyone who had set foot in her apartment claim an oath to the plan, but after I said I understood every detail, her shoulders visibly relaxed.

I was not who she thought I was. I had no authority to do any of it. But I sat in silence for another halfhour sipping my tiny glass of water and eating old, crisp lefsea.

As I left she told me to say hello to my father, my actual grandfather. Who was I to tell her he was dead? What good would knowing have done anyway?

I had learned nothing about Vera, and had somehow unwittingly consented to take part in, if not oversee, the most thoroughly detailed burial plan the world had ever seen. I didn’t feel good about it. I wanted to tell her planning took the ritual out of death. When someone dies, you scramble and pile into cars in the middle of the night. You pack only one dress shoe and mismatched socks, and don‘t realize it until you are in your suit in some cheap motel and the funeral is about to begin. You run to the car as if there were a fire. You drop everything and figure it out as you go. That is the process. When someone dies, you show your love by abandoning your life. I did not want to tell her I would take part in any portion the plan. But I did. Masquerading as my father. . .I did. I told that desperate old woman I would help bury her.

The rose colored sky had filled with stars. I left with the watch still buried in my pocket, as big a mystery as it had ever been. Stripped away of anything else, it was just an old, inexpensive watch that had been on the wrist of my grandmother, whom I had never met. We didn’t mean anything to each other that wasn’t invented. Yet I felt as if I had been growing into her. My whole life up until then, talking, hurting, and crying like a woman I had never met.

Was that what I had been so feverishly chasing, some tactile relationship with the past? But was this whole chase just a distraction to keep my mind occupied? Just a ghoulish way to distract myself from the fact that I had been there too? It could have been my father walking around with my watch in his pocket. But hadn’t we all been there? Can you accept the futility of human power without trying to control the one thing intellect, physical condition, and clean living cannot overcome? Did the answer come with realizing that beyond the carpe diem and livefortoday attitudes, we are all halfburied and know it? It’s just a change of tense. We will die. We are dying. Is it that we are all scared shitless to die in some uncomfortable bed, in some antiseptic building, where thousands have died before? In stalking the dead was I trying to unearth memories, or was I trying to see and understand my own dead self?

From Sylva’s room, I traced the highways to her daughter. Vera’s grave rests in a valley between the Rattlesnake and Moga Buttes, in a long lazy curve of the Cedar Creek. The graveyard was a dozen or so weathered headstones next to a ripening wheat field.

I walked the field amongst the headstones, leaning to one knee to read the stones. I found Vera’s grave and pushed back the wild grass. I sat down next to her grave and poured a small amount of whiskey into a collapsible metal cup. I hate whiskey and it seared the cooling air trapped in my throat. It is strange the different ways we try to commune with the dead, by doing things they did, even the ones we don’t know are entirely true. Pain and loss turn a person’s memory to mush. It is what the brain does—it does not want to remember pain. The second after the sensation is gone, the nerves just beginning to relax, the memory is forgotten. The brain is not built to store painful incidents—memory lets them float away.

The sun was going down and the wind was driving through the valley. I looked around and wondered what I was doing. As I sat on her grave, I knew there was only about four and a half or five feet of earth and a piece of varnished wood between us. But it didn’t matter. What would we say to each other if we had met? What would we have seen in each other’s eyes, something we recognized? Would she see that strange thing in herself that she had hoped she had not sent down the line? Would I look like her secret?

I got back in the car. The sky was almost completely dark as the sun fell behind the butte. The night came quickly as I drove back down the narrow road, away from Vera. Away from whatever it was that pulled between us, like invisible fingers touching the heart.

I remembered her voice coming through the static of the record, as sweet and complicated as the smell of burnt oil on a spring breeze.

Down in the Valley, down on my knees.
Praying to heaven, won’t you give my heart ease.
Give my heart ease lord, give my heart ease.
Praying to heaven, won’t you give my heart ease. •

Kevin Lutz holds an MFA in writing from Oregon State University. Down in the Valley is part of a work in progress. Other sections have appeared in Weber Studies, You are Here, and Common Ground. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, Aubrae.

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