Jack Patterat made two promises to his wife and kept one.
Because he traveled so much in his work, he promised that one day they would travel together. He also promised her that he would bury her wherever she wished. He had kept the most important of those promises and he felt good about that.
His old Chevy wagon was piled from half the front seat to the ceiling and all the way to the back hatch with everything Jack owned. The car rode low on old shocks and answered anything from the steering wheel with comic wobbles. Jack had big sideview mirrors, though, so he was always aware of what was going on behind him. It was an old rule and he liked it.
Much of the front seat held food in paper bags, and a small cooler full of ice and orange juice and milk. Toward the back was Jack’s clothing, laundromat-fresh and folded. There were blankets on one side as well, along with a blue plastic tarp, a tent, and an air mattress.
In the past year he had put 150,000 miles on the old car.
One time, near San Francisco, Jack told a hitchhiker: “I was not in favor of losing my wife’s bones. They were secure where they were because they were with me and I was everywhere, driving hard to research loss and find something worthy in it.”
He told the man more than he should have, but the nice thing about talking to strangers, he knew, was that they didn’t have to listen. Pretending was polite enough.
“Occasionally,” Jack went on, “I talked to them—her bones. Occasionally, I didn’t. Behind me, in that stable flotsam packed with care and an eye toward usefulness, there is a small niche where she rests. The funeral boys would have sold me an urn of gold, of platinum, if I’d wanted, even cast concrete. I chose plaster, two of them—one for good, one for everyday. In the glove box is a nice canvas bag, neatly folded, with a zipper top. I use it to carry Galena—that’s my wife—whenever I leave the car for a period of time; mostly, just those occasions when I check into a motel for a night or two.”
The hitchhiker, an old man of seventy, said he understood completely.
The trip back east, then, had begun with an explanation, a common beginning for many a journey. His listener seemed more relaxed as they shared a pint of whiskey, amenable to thoughts Jack had to share.
His daughter, he said, a grown woman, had snooped into her mother’s diary, a passage jumping out that required attention; no, action:
If you could choose between fish and worms, which would you choose? See to my scattering, loved ones, but you know I’ve never even seen an ocean.
“That latter phrase was code, intended for me. She wanted her ashes dumped in the lake where we’d spent our honeymoon, a big lake in St. Louis County, Minnesota, called Vermilion. The lake often has a reddish hue because it is iron ore country up there. We went to an island on that lake owned by my uncle. He was dead. I think that made us feel pretty free because we spent a lot of our honeymoon naked.
“It was all I could imagine of heaven, my uncle’s island. Achingly blue skies in a chilly August. Pines and firs, cedar, birch, the loons, and I think we saw eagles—maybe they were hawks. Certainly we had bears, a whole family on Ely Island some hundred yards away. Jesus, it all comes back: blueberries; tiny bays paved completely with lilypads; an old woodstove and an even older bed that slammed us into the center where I thought we should be anyway.
“The paradise of a young man’s dream is often wilderness, but one of the risks in a young marriage lies in finding out the dreams you share and those you don’t. My dream was north, hers was south. Mine was a family place with no brochure, and no waiters, piano bars, fresh towels, or toilets that flushed. Years later, Galena told me she’d been embarrassed to tell her friends we were not going to Nassau or St. Thomas or Grand Cayman or Bermuda.”
The old man smiled as Jack concluded, “She even caught a cold.”
Their first honeymoon meal had cooked up gray and had tasted gray, had tasted like cardboard and burnt milk. Although Jack and Galena had traded each other their virginities in high school, they had never lived together. It was, thus, the first meal she’d ever cooked for him.
He’d bought beer, however. They chilled the beer in the lake and got drunk on two cans apiece. The aborted meal finally began to seem funny, began to seem less like some bad decision they’d both made that would itch and annoy for the rest of their lives.
“Let’s—” Galena began. Jack remembered neither of them had had to finish the sentence.
The sauna was built up on rocks and had a deck that hung right over the lake. They made love in the early evening, on blankets, a pillow, and a down comforter. The western sun painted them orange, another reflection gave them an accent of purple. Color, lots of color, seemed important early in a marriage.
A faraway loon cried its mournful cry. Its grief, however, was lost on Jack and Galena, the two of them chilled with each other’s sweat and laughing.
When they were done and it was dark, they climbed over the deck railing and stood there for a moment. They each turned quickly then—the instincts sound—to hold the other, then leaped into the blackness. The lake, in its knifing chill, was breathtaking, the night cut by Galena’s light whimper, all she could manage of a scream as she struggled to gain back the breath the icy lake had punched out of her. Taller, barely one toe on a shoreside rock, Jack held her arm as she treaded water, his own gut feeling hammered, the shock slowly bringing laughter as they held each other again and swam and sank and rolled over and around each other, moved farther out and away from the lichen-covered rocks, the shore, the island—away from safety and silly meals and into all the times and all the meals that would follow.
“There must be swimming early in a marriage,” Jack told her, aware that he had not quite lost the pomposity of the wedding vows.
“Why is that?” Galena asked.
“I don’t know.”
Three days after leaving San Francisco Jack drove the Chevy up the steep hill toward the lake. Early that morning he’d dropped the old man off in Mankato in southern Minnesota. He was Lakota, he’d told Jack, a man abandoned by his children. In one of those screwy twists of family life, however, his grandchildren had invited him to come live with them. He thought it might work out.
The road was dusty red, curving. At the top of the hill, Jack could see an equal distance down to the shoreline and the curving queue of boathouses, workmen’s boathouses still, as they had been then: tin shanties built on thick wood frames that could easily hold a boat winched out of the water in wintertime.
Jeannie, Jack’s daughter, was already at the boathouse. She’d spent the night in a motel in Tower just down the road.
She had the keys to the boathouse and the island cabin, she told Jack. They had been mailed to her by Jack’s aunt, a woman Jeannie had never met who, it was said, weighed over four-hundred pounds. “I had the boat and motor checked out,” the aunt had written, “but the cabin will be dusty. There is kerosene out there for the lamps. There should be plenty of firewood. I would like to meet you but I am dying right now.”
Jack wondered if he’d remember exactly where the island was since it was at least a mile from the boathouse and there were many islands in the lake. One hand, however, was in the past and he let it steer the outboard.
It was an easy trip. The hand remembered.
After tying the boat to the small dock, Jack started a fire in the woodstove and made coffee. He pulled the frozen hamburger patties from his satchel, the burgers still chilled, nearly thawed. There were buns in the bag, too, and a can of baked beans. For dessert, he’d bought Pop Tarts—little cardboard packets of jelly, he’d always joked. Jeannie preferred them untoasted.
“Let me see if I’ve guessed right,” he said, taking Jeannie’s purse from the table near the door. “May I?”
“Sure,” she said. “No condoms, birth control pills, drugs. It’s a good daughter’s purse.”
“You sound regretful,” he said.
“I have a life-threatening illness. Sin is out of the question.”
“Not work, I’ll bet. Not you. What are you doing?”
“I’m an assistant editor at a literary journal in Chicago now,” Jeannie said. “It’s called Footnotes/Toes, Too. The editor has won a Pulitzer Prize along with lots of grants. She has the name to pull it off so we do O.K.. Weekends and other times I’m an assistant for a magician. Her name—it’s her real name—is Industrial Words. She likes my not having a right hand. There’s a whole range of things we do with that.”
“How’s your foot?” Jack asked her.
“All right. It’s going to happen. They’ve told me that. Indy’s already giving it some thought.”
“Working it into her act.”
Jack pulled a thin, tubular device from Jeannie’s purse and said, “Pepper spray?”
“It’s not for your eggs or fried potatoes.”
“Didn’t bring those.” Digging further, he finally said, “I knew it.”
He held up a handful of plastic packets of mustard and ketchup. There were similar packets of soy sauce and vinegar. He left those in the purse.
“Your honeymoon. Here?”
“It was all we could afford. It was free. We could afford free, especially with a borrowed car.”
In the morning fog Jeannie stood on the end of the dock, cold in her swimsuit (two-piece, thin fabric), a whiteness almost lantern-like against the steel mist. Jack checked the boat, his daughter a distraction, an intrusion of beauty into his life. He wanted to tell her she was knock ’em dead magnificent but the occasion was too solemn.
He looked hard, though, a squint to his eyes. She was muscular across her shoulders, a coil of strength rising up from calves and thighs shaped by a runner’s addiction—nice slap at a bad fate, Jack thought. Good for her.
“Do you still run?” he asked.
“Hurts too much.”
Her face, hidden from him for the moment, was squarish, thin, an angular chin and jaw, prettiness kissed many times—had to be. Beneath that, however—reverence clashing with memory—like a ghost creeping out of a machine, beneath a perfect nose and a neck just right: her mother’s body, her mother’s chest—Galena saying one time, “my thoracic theater.” Years ago, he’d received man-to-man compliments on Galena’s chest, scores registering, Jack a player. Many times, on Sunday mornings or wasted afternoons, Jack had stared, unaroused—many times, not every time—at Galena’s body, that un-shy totality, and discussed life insurance, car repairs, the downside of an upturn on his 401(k)—sometimes the hazards of recurrent gangrene in a child’s hand. Galena said one evening, “There’s so much we don’t know about God,” but then she’d said, turning the whole world away from Jeannie and toward herself, “Do you know what’s involved in an angioplasty?”
He wished he’d said to her, “Sometimes death.” Maybe she’d known that.
Jeannie was in the water less than thirty seconds when she was bitten by the fish, most likely a northern pike, Jack thought. It was only a scratch on her ankle but it did bleed.
She began to swim—the plan, this burial plan, was hers, not Jack’s—a lazy crawl with her good arm, the other arm clutching the urn to her chest. Jack followed in the boat, rowing—no motor. I’ll know when it’s time, she had told him. That had been three laps ago, maybe four. He was glad the island was small.
Jack’s shoulders ached and he wanted to start the motor, but he knew she was concentrating and the motor would break her concentration. Still, a fire sat quietly across his shoulders, and a vertebra clicked each time he pulled back on the oars.
“Does your ankle bother you?” he asked once. He wondered if the fish had bit into the leg that was going bad.
“It itches,” she said.
“Even in the water?”
She was too far ahead of him to hear anything else. Jack was afraid she might disappear into the fog if he didn’t pay attention.
Jack saw, actually saw, the bullet. He thought it must have been the fog and heavy air that did it but there was no doubt. Faster than screaming Jesus—Jeannie’s old compliment to an athlete she admired.
His estimate was that it missed her by a foot. She had heard, had felt nothing. He didn’t know which one shattered the urn, but additional bullets followed, none visible, then silence. The shooting had stopped by the time Jack could position the boat between the firing and Jeannie. Later, putting things together, she saw the little maneuver as a heroic act and told him so.
“I’m not a hero,” Jack said. “I’m your father.”
He said no more.
Jack heard water lapping, felt something cut into his fluid territory. It was a rowboat, the same model as his aunt’s, the same outboard mounted on the rear. Two women were in it, staring hard into the fog, startled when Jack suddenly appeared just sitting there.
“It was the fog, you see,” one of them said. “We couldn’t see well in the fog. It’s a darned fog, hey?”
“So you shot anyway?” Jack asked.
“We could see to shoot. We could see something.”
Jack thought the younger one, the one without the gun, looked like Jeannie. So many women either did or didn’t that it had become a standard of sorts. My daughter, the only link to this earth I still have, is not here. You can be here, but only if you look like Jeannie.
Jack decided that if most cars worked the way thought worked, highways could be smaller and shorter.
“But not clearly?” Jack asked.
“Clear enough. I did shoot. I’m pretty sure I did.”
It was the older woman answering him, Jack positive that in her wispy hair, a roundness to her eyes, he could see Galena. He was sure that if he could see them both naked, certain things would confirm themselves.
“At my daughter.”
“We did not know that. Had she not been your daughter, she might have been a deer.”
“But you could see me? You could see I was a boat?”
“You’re a boat?”
“You could see the boat.”
“We didn’t see you at all, being as how you were high and all. Looking low, though, I mean bending over the boat—that was the target. Jesus, is she all right?”
“She’s all right. She’s not hurt. I’m not all right and I’m not all right a lot.”
“What’s with her hand?”
“I know,” said Jack. “I’ve known for a long time.”
“To her hand?”
“Yes. The stumpy one, not the good one.”
“I believe you shot it,” Jack said. “I do believe so.”
Jack watched as the two women disappeared into the fog.
Jack imagined himself having a conversation with his lawyer, the one who kept track of his money.
“I think she was shot in her ashes,” Jack said.
“Was there damage?” his lawyer asked. His name was Munice Gentry.
“Her ashes were in my daughter’s arms.”
“Was your daughter shot?”
“No, only her mother’s ashes.”
“—desecration of a corpse. Excuse the indelicacy.”
“That’s all we had, all that was left of her.”
“The insult, sir, being shot in your bones .”
“I know, I know.”
“Do you? I think a piece of her was plucked from the sky by a loon.”
“Could be. Things—she—flew all over.”
“But your daughter?”
“A half dozen shots. Sprayed parts of her mother all over her.”
“But she’s O.K.? That’s my question.”
“I’m not. That’s my answer.”
The conversation, however, would not be necessary, since he had lied to his daughter.
They would leave soon, tagging each other south in cars they had both chosen, hers bought without his advice at all. The great woods would eventually thin into farmland, and they would be on the interstate again. She would find Chicago and her job involving feet and toes and the eternal healing of magic. She had Jack’s cellphone number so that she could call when it was time for something to be amputated.
She had said it in a funny way: “You don’t have to come. I’ll just want you to know that there’s now a little less of me.”
Less indeed, Jack had thought. There was a quantity to her that seemed beyond measuring, certainly beyond loss. He loved her a great deal, he decided, and only wished that he could see her more often.
Now he was alone and the old Chevy held all the hard goods he possessed, a small hollow in some clothes and blankets near the back holding the real Galena, the one he could not let his daughter have.
Jack said one time: “There is a point at which the claims of children cease. Parents know that, but they lie to their children anyway. Discovering those lies is the secret to maturity. The urn she’d had, the one that was shot right out of her incomplete arm, was filled with dirt and stones and some bones from a Kentucky Fried Chicken meal I once had. Fragments. It’s all we remember of anyone anyway.”
The miles seemed suddenly empty. He knew he needed to apologize to Galena for what he’d done, to remind her of the times when he’d talked to her, one eye in the rearview mirror where he could see her. She was what she was—not a ghost, not an imaginary plaything—and he accepted that. She’d been for a long time now an affable companion, a good friend. There was nothing of dementia in chewing the fat with your wife’s bones.
She never answered, never talked back to him—an assurance of health on his part.
—to have your bones stripped, your skeleton put back together with wires, not unlike something you might find in a classroom. I would have put you in the bedroom with the west window because you always liked to watch the storms rolling in, the big snows and the threats of tornadoes.
What could possibly be wrong with that?
I think I would have liked your bones. I liked everything else about you.
A secret place, a secret secret. No one would ever know how simple it was. They’d find me dead on the floor one day—natural causes—and you upstairs. Realtors would want certain facts suppressed. Others would wonder what to do with you, would wonder who you even were.
“Is it plastic? From a mail-order house? Was he an anatomist? A teacher?”
Perhaps someone would think me a murderer.
“We’re having it tested. We know it was female.”
As did we all. We certainly did.
Jack thought for a moment: I have no idea what to do with you, Galena. I honestly don’t. Time to get some gas, though. Mauston, the sign says. A big truck stop. They say Wisconsin gas is pretty good.
“I’m hungry, too. Just starving. How about you?”