Tuesday
Oct112016

Maps and Legends

Miranda Schmidt


 

Jack eats pizza once a week for lunch. He gets two slices: one pepperoni, one sausage, plus root beer. Sometimes he takes advantage of the free refill to also have cola. While he eats, he imagines his wife, always a woman of healthy habits, lecturing him on the evils of animal fats and corn syrup, on the dangers of the greasy/salty meat/cheese combination plus sugar. In his mind, she tells him that his doctor wouldn't like it, that he's going to die early, that he'll leave his children orphaned and her a widow simply because he doesn't have the willpower to resist the diabetes-/heart-disease-/obesity-causing gluttony of 21st century America. Our ancestors, Helen used to say, holding up a can of Coke from the six-pack he kept stashed in the back of the fridge, placing her other hand on her skinny low-fat, no added sugar, whole-grain, most-of-the-time-vegan hip, did not evolve to drink this kind of shit.

Jack takes a long sip of root beer, sucking it up through the straw, drawing it out, watching the dark liquid rise while he makes his one wish. He wishes that Helen would rise up from her grave and come to try to stop him, wishes she would scold him, lecture him, laugh that indulgent shrug of a laugh that she always seemed to save just for him when he was at his most exasperating. He glances up at the tables around him, seeking her out. But all he finds are three different mothers with young children and a pair of teenagers looking shiftily triumphant, probably skipping school. He doesn't see Helen anywhere, not yet. He takes another sip.

This is how he summons her, has done every Wednesday at noon for four weeks, ever since the air turned autumnal and the leaves started changing to gold. She'll come to him, he knows, in some way, if he's patient. If he watches. If he waits. Sometimes it's only a small thing, a feeling of presence stronger than imagination, deeper than pretend, surrounding him, like water with its own special current. Often, now, it's more than that. Often, now, he sees her. The first time was a reflection in glass, like a shadow, that moved across the window and vanished. After that it was stronger, more solid, like the hint of a whole person walking by on the street outside. Once before, he even followed her for blocks at a time before blinking, losing sight of her for just long enough to realize how crazy he seemed.

Now, as he finishes his lunch, Jack's lips and fingers are slick with grease that he can't quite rub off with a napkin. He imagines Helen frowning her distaste, crinkling her nose as she tells him to go wash his hands. Instead, in his mind, he leans in to kiss her, making her screech, but with a smile that crinkles her eyes.

He is drinking the last of the soda, so full of melted ice that it's almost entirely water, sullen and flat in the depths of the cup—it makes a squelch of protest as he tries to capture it— when he finally sees her walking past the window. She is a swath of dark hair, moving fast, there and gone again, faceless and quicker than blinking.

He is up and moving before he has a chance to think, before the rational part of his brain can engage and tell him that the woman is either a stranger or a hallucination, neither of which should be followed. If he moves quickly enough, he believes, he can outrun his own logic. He is through the glass door and out into the chilly air just as the woman turns down McKenzie Street, her hair wafting out behind her in a momentary breeze, each strand picked out to glisten in the slanting autumn light.

The angle of the sun makes him squint as he follows her, turns the world dreamlike, hazy. On McKenzie, all the maples have turned red and yellow and her hair bobs beneath them one block ahead. She is like a mirage, half-blurred, a trick of light and air, a stray puff of woodsmoke mixed up in a slow fall of leaves. He tries to catch up with her.

Following, he hears again the low timbre of her voice, sees, once more, he thinks, he hopes, the shape of her face when she smiles. He smells her breath, its particular coffee and mint, her hair (lavender over a scent he can only describe as the Body of Helen). He re-meets and re-marries her, re-fathers their children, re-lives their life in the grid of the neighborhood blocks they called home together once upon a time, not so very long ago but forever away. Following her twists and her turns, he cannot, will not, must not, lose sight of her.

 

Ahead of him, she turns down Grant Road, and he finds himself back at that party listening to some new R.E.M. song jangling a Georgia drawl over the speakers, singing about maps and legends over a twang of melodic guitar. He is wondering if they mean legends like myths or legends like the keys to maps, when there she is, twenty years old and stumbling into him, having tripped over the carpet in heels that make her a whole head taller than he is, sloshing her red cup but spilling only a little. At first, he is only aware of her hair, the long curling dark mass of it. When he first catches a glimpse of her face she is cringing at her awkwardness, embarrassed. She is beautiful, not pretty at all, but beautiful, intimidating with her dark eyes that look almost black in the dimmed light, her regal nose, her sharp cheekbones and chin. She is, he thinks, like a woman escaped from a Klimt painting.

She doesn't apologize for the stumble or for the small dribble of beer that's ended up on the tips of his sneakers. Instead, she introduces herself as Helen Bauer, history major, Chicago born and raised and missing her city down here at the deep rural heart of the state. And he tells her he is only Jack Engleton of Normal, Illinois ("just as boring," he says as he always does, even though, in reality, he loves his hometown, can't think of any place better, "as it sounds.") studying botany and biology, currently taking a class about frogs.

"Hm," she says, "frogs."

And, nervous, he finds himself staring down at his shoes while launched into a lecture on how amphibians interact with their environments, the way they move between water and land, how their porous thin skin (which many species shed periodically and then eat, did you know?) allows them to breathe in both. When he finally looks up, he sees the expression on her face, the tight polite smile, the eyes wandering the room, beginning their search for escape, so he interrupts himself to compliment her hair.

 "I cut it all off once when I was twelve," she says, "I wanted to look just like Edie Sedgewick."

"And did you?"

She laughs. It is the first time he hears that laugh of hers, that unrestrained, unselfconscious warm rolling sound. It fills her. It fills him. It fills everything.

"Not even a little bit."

By the end of the night, magically, she has given him her phone number and agreed to go out sometime. When he calls the next morning, she counters his dinner and movie with the suggestion that they go see her friend's band. The band is loud and punky and terrifying in its spiked hair and Helen bobs along to the cacophony, graceful, as if it was made for her.

 

Up ahead of him she is turning again, this time down Main Street. As she turns, she makes a long shadow, the light slanting it, stretching it out behind her, as if it is reaching for him, yearning and beckoning with the gravitational pull of death itself. Does she still want him now, the ghost of her? Can the dead still want anything, he wonders, or is desire confined to the living?

 

And now, it is morning, their first, and Jack rises early to make breakfast. He bikes to the grocery store just as the sun is beginning to touch sky. He feels, as he rides, all the strength of his youth, of his life just beginning.

At the store he buys bacon and good ham (the deli kind, not the boxed lunchmeat) and eggs. He buys peppers and onions and garlic and bright orange cheddar cheese. He pays more for the food than he would usually spend on a week's worth of groceries, his student budget generally keeping him to oatmeal and pasta and canned beans. But this is a special occasion, the first breakfast shared with the woman he knows, somehow even then in a half-conscious way, that he'll marry. He hands the bills over and bikes back to his apartment where Helen still sleeps.

When she wakes, walking bleary-eyed out of the bedroom, he hands her a mug full of coffee and leads her to the table where he's laid out her omelet and bacon next to a glass (he owns no vases) full of wild daisies.

"For me?" she asks and he nods.

"You're incredibly sweet," she tells him as he pulls out her chair.

As they eat, he does notice her hesitation, the way she forks the ham and cheese filled eggs in small pieces, takes a deep breath before putting the first bite in her mouth, the way she smiles weakly at him as she chews. He thinks that maybe she is simply tired or not so much a breakfast person. Or maybe she's one of those young women who doesn't eat much, who survives mostly on coffee and air.

It isn't until three weeks, one meatloaf, two hamburgers, one steak, and a chicken pot pie later that her roommate tells him she's a vegetarian.

 

Jack keeps a picture of his wife on his desk, the one where she is twenty-two and wearing the wedding dress her mom made for her and smiling. The dress is in the old hippie style, out of fashion even then with its flowing white sleeves and thick lace. But on Helen, the dress looks like it has no temporal allegiance. In it, Helen seems mythic, a woman stepped outside of time. On their wedding night, Jack tells her, in the earnest disguise of a joke, that her face could launch a thousand ships and she gives him the same weak worried smile that she gave to his omelet.

Then she gives him that laugh and touches his cheek with her hand, perpetually cold-fingered and warm-palmed.

She says, "I love the way you love me."

He keeps the wedding picture on his desk because he hopes it will keep him from forgetting the shape of her face, the particular set of her eyes, the looks she would give, the way that face changed, moment to moment, during the not quite thirty years that he knew her. But he finds instead that the face in the picture is starting to replace the face in his memory. Now, when he remembers her, she is often smiling that particular wedding day smile, its mixed up excitement and nerves posed and pinching the corners of her mouth. She didn't always smile that way, did she? Just on that day, just for pictures or when she was trying to be polite to a stranger. He knows her real smile. It's there in his memory, if he can only just find it.

Since his wife's death, Jack sees her face outlined in everything. It pushes itself out of tree bark. It curls out of mist. It shapes clouds. He sees it startling out of the very real faces of strangers and coworkers and friends. But, most of all, he sees it in the face of their son. Erik has Helen's hair, thick and dark, but on him it is straight instead of curly. He has Helen's almost-black eyes and in his face they are just as inscrutable. He has her sharp features too, but on him they are bird-like rather than beautiful. Erik's is a scholar's face: watchful, intellectual, intimidating in its scrutiny, but not otherworldly.

Sometimes Jack finds himself avoiding Erik's eyes with a force and intention that surprises him. He did so this morning when, as he now does every morning, Erik brought him a cup of coffee. Jack knows what the morning coffee means, that it is probably one of the most caretaking gestures his son, as a twenty-five year old man, can make towards his father. But this morning, as Erik held the mug out, Jack simply couldn't look at the face that was almost but not quite his wife's. He was afraid that that face might usurp Helen's in memory, replace it, and make him forget. Instead, Jack gazed at the steam curling out of the coffee, hovering over it, clinging before disappearing.

 

On Main Street, he trips on a crack in the sidewalk and looks down. When he looks back up, he can't find her. For a moment, he thinks she has vanished, as she must, as she always does. He can't see her in the light, the hazy air fogged with fireplace smoke and burning backyard leaves. He has lost her again, lost the sight of her, kept an improper watch. If he could only stop blinking, could stare forever at the back of her so death couldn't grab hold and pull her back down into earth, couldn't whisk her away and vanish her into the air.

But then he catches the trail of her hair, gazes hard, and can shape her again, her whole body walking, leading him on over cracks in the sidewalk. He trips again and again over tree roots pushing up through the asphalt as he tries not to look down, look away, as he desperately tries not to blink.

 

On their first weekend living in Crofton, just before Erik is born, Jack takes her to the old unkempt pioneer cemetery where the prairie that once covered the whole town is preserved, its ancient grasses undisturbed by draining, construction, or lawn mowers. He wants to show her what he does at his new job, what it is that he's studying, preserving out here in this little middle-of-nowhere town that they've moved to.

He tells her the names of the grasses: Panicum virgatum, switch grass, tall and seeding; Schizachyrium scoparium, little bluestem, tufted red and brown; Spartina pectinata, prairie cordgrass, soft and yellow-green. He shows her the flowers, the little white Baptisia bracteata, the bright yellow Lithospermum canescens, the Sisyrinchium albidum with its tall pale blue tips.

He watches her poke around the small shy stones, their shallow carved faces worn almost illegible. Gently, she pushes aside the phlox and the spiderwort to see them. She moves her face close, squinting, trying to make out the words. She runs her fingers over them as if she could decipher the lives of the dead with a touch. She does this to every stone she can find and then she stands, breathing in the new spring air and looks around at the grass and the flowers and the stones beneath the bright expansive sky and dubs them beautiful.

"I love it here," she tells him, as they walk back to the car.

Every Saturday, they drive back. He collects seeds while she reads the stones. They hardly speak over the companionable sounds of the croaking frogs and creaking grasshoppers and crickets. By summer, the cicadas are singing.

 

Their son's first day of first grade marks Helen's return to school as well. Jack is to drop Erik off so that Helen can drive over to Crofton Bible College (the only college within twenty miles that offers an MA in History) early to buy her textbooks. When she says goodbye to Erik, who is kneeling by the coat rack, looking small as he ties his shoes, the boy's eyes go round and scared. But he lets her go without protest. He doesn't even cry after she leaves.

When they are in the car, father and son and backpack weaving through slow morning neighborhood traffic, Erik says, his voice serious, "She isn't coming back."

For a moment, just one, Jack believes him. Helen is gone; she's left them. It has all been a dream, he thinks, a delusion to think that she could love them enough, this father, this son, to stay forever. She's a selkie who's found her skin, free now to abandon the people she loved but loved less than that freedom to leave.

But that can't be right, Jack thinks, the normal morning with its streets filled with houses and yards and swing sets, its cars filled with parents driving children to school, just like he is, bringing him back to the secure predictability of daily family life. This is Helen, his wife of seven years who leaves tangles of her hair in the shower drain every morning and has recently discovered a love of baking, filling the house with the warm cozy scent of bread and cookies, Helen who sits with him every night reading Erik to sleep before tiptoeing, in their ritual parental conspiracy, out of their son's room and into their own.

"No," he tells his son, "Don't be silly. She'll be back for dinner. You'll see."

And of course, she is. When he gets home, she's already cooked up a pot of spaghetti and picked Erik up and set him in front of his homework that looks more like a page copied out of a coloring book than anything Jack remembers doing in school. Still, he is surprised by the sense of relief that he feels, as if he really believed, all day, that his son might be right.

 

It is night and she is whispering, quiet so as not to wake Erik, telling Jack stories of their newly purchased house, an old Victorian just inside the boundaries of town with peeling paint and creaking pipes and a crumbling foundation that, they've been warned, allows the basement to flood every spring. She tells him how the house was built by one of Crofton's founding townsmen, how the surrounding neighborhood used to be a farm, how the farm was sold off, lot by lot, in the fifties to grow the subdivision. She tells him about the townsman's wife, how she started the district's first school right here in this house until they moved the school to a new larger building by the railroad station.

Jack imagines the house filled up with the voices of children reciting poems and scratching out sums on small chalkboards. The house is not as big as he thought an old Victorian would be, but it is just as full of creaking boards and shadows that brood in the corners like structural memories. The house is starkly different from the one story 1970s ranch that they lived in for their son's first nine years. The ranch had big picture windows in almost every room and a flat green lawn and no shadows to speak of. This house feels as old as his grandma's ancient slow moving cat when it looked at you with its deep and unfathomable eyes. He thinks he can feel the house staring, watching them, not with malevolence or even curiosity, just a long neutral look, a kind of awareness of presence.

Helen is moving her hand across his chest, stroking the tufts of hair that have grown up to his neck since they first met. Her hand is so familiar, its rhythm, its pressure, its fluttering warm/cold, the shape of its fingers and palm and yet, it turns strange sometimes, still, becomes an unfamiliar hand, the unknowable hand of another. Sometimes he feels that they are so familiar, so close, that he can predict his wife's every motion, every expression, reaction, thought. He thinks, sometimes, that he can see inside her mind through the arch of an eyebrow or the subtle tightening of lips. But then, she will do something unpredicted, give a new expression, say something that utterly puzzles him, so much that he has to look at her face to make sure that the voice is hers and not some other person's, some stranger in the room. And for days afterwards he feels that sharp distance of two-ness.

That night she is looking at him and her eyes are a mystery as they pick up the gleam of the bedside lamp. But a good kind of mystery. A good kind of other.

Sometimes, when he is feeling imaginative, Jack thinks that he can never be sure if they themselves made Mari or if the house conjured up their second unexpected child from a shard of old memory and a peel of old paint and a watchfulness that, even as a baby, she shared with it.

 

There is the day he comes home and finds Helen bent over her laptop, typing furiously, writing what she tells him, later that night in the quiet of their bedroom, is her book.

"It's about Crofton," she says, "The history of the town. Did you know how much history is here? The pioneer cemetery is just the start. There are so many stories."

"Sounds like a project," he tells her, "that's right up your alley."

He watches as, over the next months and years, the manuscript grows and their house fills with books of names and dates and stories, with boxes of old photographs, and folders filled with her notes. The manuscript balloons to one thousand pages, sprouts footnotes by the hundreds and chapters on everything from ancient local cooking practices to the history of spiritualism within the county lines. By the time of her death, Helen's history still hasn't reached past the year 1900.

But she keeps herself busy, so busy, in those years leading up to her death: running to the library, to teach local history classes at the college, to the historical society, picking Mari up from school, volunteering with the PTA, making repairs on their house that seems to be in a perpetual state of almost, but not quite, falling apart. She has turned into wind, he thinks, a light breeze that blows past him, playing with his hair for a second, touching his face, before moving on, always onward, busy, busy, busy. He doesn't mind so long as she is happy. He is sure she is happy. Even though he spends those last five months finding her wedding ring forgotten on tables, glinting on sideboards, gazing up from the edge of the sink.

 

Now, Jack keeps the manuscript in a box in the back of his office closet. He's read it over and over again since her death, getting lost in its tangles of footnotes, the past blurring into the present. But sometimes he takes it out simply to lay his hands on it, as if he might feel his wife seeping up through the words she once wrote.

 

The figure turns down Park Street and he knows, suddenly, where she is taking him. His steps falter, hesitating, just for a moment. She doesn't pause, doesn't slow down. So he speeds up. He follows.

She enters the trees and Jack finds himself back in the park where they picnic. They bring a blanket and a basket of food and their two children and Helen tells stories of what happened, once upon a time, in this place that they live, and Jack teaches the kids (really teaches Mari, Erik, a teenager now, is uninterested) to turn a blade of grass into a whistle. He can imitate the calls of birds for them, entertaining with caws and chirps. Sometimes the birds even come to him, perching in the branches of the oaks and searching, confused, for an avian stranger, finding nothing more than a man thieving their songs.

 

In the park, there is a pond, deep and wide, surrounded by reeds and old prairie grasses and cattails and willows. Some nights he can't sleep, imagining his wife walking through all that grass, lifting her hands to run her fingers over the tops of it. In his dreams sometimes, the grass catches at her long hair, holding her back, pulling her down. In the pond there are waterlilies, Nymphaea tuberosa. They cover the suface, spreading out their broad leaves held up by thick stalks that crowd in the shadowy water beneath. When the early morning jogger sees her and drags her out of that pond, he imagines she is trailed by those waterlilies. He imagines she looks just like Ophelia or the Lady of Shallot. But in his dreams of her, her skin is green with algae, as if she had lived like a rock at the bottom of that water for years.

 

In the hospital that Wednesday, when they finally tracked him down at work and he arrived in the late afternoon, too late to save her but just in time to watch, her skin was horribly white. Her face was different, smaller, drawn into itself and unreachable. He assumed that they'd tell him, like they always did in movies, to talk to her, that, even unconscious, she might just be able to hear him. But they didn't. Instead, they gave him sympathetic looks and medical terms he couldn't remember and told him to stay, that it wouldn't be long now, as if they weren't waiting for death but for some kind of delivery.

That night, he watched her breathing change from quiet shallow breaths to gasps that seemed to use her whole body.

He still hears the breathing, the labored rasps of it, when he's falling asleep, when he's waking up, when he dreams. When the nurses heard it they told him "soon" but it seemed like an eternity marked out in the spaces between those breaths growing further and further apart until they were so far apart that he thought they had stopped completely before the next one came, the last this time, he was sure of it, must be, couldn't possibly be any more, then another that startled him, making him hope. Then nothing. He waited, sure there must be one more breath, one more. Longing for it. Dreading it. Nothing. He watched a little vein pulse in her neck, until that, too, stopped and she was wholly unmoving, frozen in time. He called the nurse who called the doctor who marked the time of death, ten, twenty minute after it happened. He wished he'd thought to check the time himself.

When he got home, late at night, early in the morning, he filled every last garbage bag they had with her clothes. He emptied her closet, emptied her drawers, emptied the laundry basket. He filled each bag, watching it grow, black plastic bulging with the stitched cotton woven wool remnants of her. Full, they would stretch, making room for more and more and more. He drove twenty miles out of town to drop the bags at the furthest thrift store he could think of. The store wasn't open yet, so he left the bags piled up outside the front doors. They looked like fat shadows, still hungry.

On the drive back, he felt light, so impossibly exhaustedly light and heady, floating empty.

The next morning, seeing the horrifying spaces left in the closets and drawers, he made the drive back. But when he arrived, all the bags were gone.

 

Now, he can see her in the distance, in the shadows of old oaks, almost a shadow herself. He keeps his eyes fixed on the back of her. He knows if he looks away she might vanish, pulled out of time, separating back out of herself.

She stops where the reeds start and turns, finally turns to him, to look. Her face is clouded, a wisp of shadow and a haze of light. He stares and squints and widens his eyes but he cannot see her face. He cannot find it in his memory. He cannot see it through the tangles of her long dark hair.