Thursday, December 01, 2005

Under an August Moon

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Chapter 1

~ corn moon ~

At 120 degrees, all hope for a mild August was lost. Grace watched as the concrete on the other side of her glass arcadia door emitted wavy heat lines into the already sweltering surroundings. The plastic thermometer that was strapped haphazardly to her back fence was melting slowly, becoming part of the brown concrete wall. Its single black hand hung limp – pointed straight down – as if to compare this summer to the atmosphere in Hell. Even the butterflies painted on the square tin frame of the outdoor clock looked sad, haphazard.

She hated this place. Especially in August.

She had moved to Arizona in August five years ago, the worst possible time to come to the worst possible place. “You don’t know what it’s like to survive here in the month of August, honey. It’s dangerous. If I can help, just let me know,” Nancy, her new neighbor had said, popping her pink Bubbalicious and tugging at her too-small tube top before disappearing into her house.

Grace had smiled and thanked her, trying to be gracious as she was standing there sweating. She didn’t realize at the time that Nancy wasn’t exaggerating.

In this kind of weather, everything becomes dangerous. Drinking glasses shatter if left outside. Electrical lines snap and pop in the arid, desolate air. The asphalt melts the soft rubber soles of shoes and parking lots smell like tar pits. She couldn’t even think of getting the morning newspaper without bedroom slippers or flip flops. Even her cracked, calloused heels couldn’t protect the tender, fleshy parts of her feet from scorching. She soon realized that getting into the car in August is worse than navigating a walk over hot coals. Door handles can’t be touched without a protective towel. Steering wheels singe flesh. Mothers have to carefully wrap metal seatbelt clips with worn t-shirts to make sure that their children, who they are trying to protect from sharp curves and bad drivers, don’t suffer permanent burn marks.

People don’t go anywhere during daylight hours unless it is absolutely essential. Fruit, milk, and meat spoil from grocery store to home. Ice cream becomes milk soup. Grocers stock extra large bottles of purified water and pack freezers full of bags of cubed ice for when ice-machines break. People creep slowly through the freezer section pretending to look at the rows of packaged meals when they really are looking for salvation. The produce department cranks their cooling units to maximum power to make sure that the week’s haul of onions, lettuce, strawberries, roots and peaches won’t rot and stink in the refrigerated bins.

The entire town challenges their individual cooling units to reach that unobtainable goal of 75 degrees. The result is a dizzying hum that permeates the town as the air-conditioning units whir and click constantly. The faithful purr is almost comforting, lulling the townspeople into a false sense of security, until the unit fails to murmur. A series of cracks, pops and hisses gives way to cursing on a daily basis. It is the ebb and flow, the desperate music of the month.

Any indication of a breeze exists only to invoke the unsettling feeling of walking past an undertaker’s crematorium. The green-brown leaves on the sagging trees beg for mercy. Grace listens to them whisper and rustle, shaking like maraca beans in crisp, dried husks. Flowers shrivel – beg for cool rain to wet their parched roots. Nature stalls and only emerges in the silent, dead night. Nightfall brings the screeching of crickets and the low, flapping sounds of brown bats in search of water and sustenance. It also brings the people of Esker, Arizona.

Eskerites, as they fondly refer to themselves, don’t emerge from their climate controlled boxes until after the sun has set and night has declared her presence. Grace noticed this fact her first August in town. The unfortunate ones who emerge in the daylight hours for work, or some such triviality, are careful not to move too much lest they sweat in their carefully pressed linens and arrive at their destination looking like wrinkled hags.

People are angry in August – much more so than other months throughout the year. There are more fights between husbands and wives, who yell in hushed tones so the neighbors don’t eavesdrop; more full-mouthed threats by willful teenagers to leave town and never return; more crimes committed. The anger burns everyday interactions – swearing matches ensue in parking lots over who should have the privilege to park in the prime shaded spot. Friends tiptoe around one another, avoiding any sudden moves or sharp tongued words. Most days, they avoid interaction all together. People stop calling one another – the shrill ring of the phone is enough to bring the most patient person to the edge of reason. No one is to be trusted. God forbid someone makes a mistake and tells the newspaper editor’s wife that her husband is regularly seen after work with his slinky advertising manager. Everyone has known their secret for months, but no one can do what is right, what is needed. Perhaps in August, people whisper.

When Grace first moved here from North Tome, New Mexico, she thought that people in Esker overreacted to August. She wasn’t thrilled with the weather, but she knew it wasn’t the end of the world, just another hot month in a desert wasteland. Why did August become a catch-all excuse for craziness? Why was Esker held hostage, its people victims of violent temperatures? She just didn’t understand.

Then again, Jack often told Grace that she didn’t understand a lot of things. She didn’t understand why her neighbors peeked through their wide-slatted blinds into the streets to spy on one another. She didn’t understand the purpose of gossip. She didn’t understand why, after 34 years on this planet, she felt trapped in Esker without any hope for a life that was truly hers. She always wanted to be wild, to travel and taste and explore. Now she looked forward to nothing. Well, nothing significant anyway.

After a few years in Esker, her opinion of August changed. She was now just as skeptical as the rest of them. The Corn Moon that hung low in the heat streaked skies watched her with its yellow, suspicious eyes just like it watched the whole of the town. She began peeking through the slats in her blinds and spoke to no one unless it was absolutely necessary. She never emerged until dark crept in, overtaking the sun and the sky. When she did open her front door and brave the outside world it was only to get her personal necessities or to visit Jack’s grandmother, Gloria. Occasionally, she listened to Nancy’s gossip.

August couldn’t be trusted. People had a way of finding out your secrets in August.

Last week, there was an article in the Esker Daily Chronicle about how people tend to disappear in August. The article is a fixture in the paper every August and has varying headlines offering advice for how to survive the eighth month. Still, the busy streets remain empty during daylight hours; neighbors don’t take homemade casseroles to the sick; novelty stores and antique shops lock their doors tight and place “Gone ‘til September” signs in their front windows. Even more disquieting is the fact that some people disappear forever, without a word to anyone about leaving.

That’s how Jack left. Never said a word to anyone. In September, people began to ask Grace what happened to him. They smiled careful smiles and asked when he’d be back. By the first of December, people had stopped asking and started whispering. August was blamed. August was always blamed.

Grace had the feeling early on that he would leave and not return to her. Each August, he would change. He’d stop calling her his “doll baby” and retreat to the couch to lose himself in television programs. Jack didn’t watch a lot of TV, but Grace got used to him spending hours in front of the box during the late summer. He’d flip through channels, stopping for hours on infomercials and televangelist shows. If someone was selling something, he was ready to buy.

The night he left, she had felt a shift in him early in the evening. Grace was tossing the crisp salad together with wooden tongs and adding pieces of cold chicken to the mix. Jack ignored her – sprawled across the floor, head tilted toward the screen.

“Do you want to be saved? Do you feel the glory of life?” Grace looked over at the box plugged into the wall. A white-haired, perfectly coiffed and manicured televangelist was shaking and sweating. His tailored suit fell straight, his shoes were shining. She shook her head. She didn’t need to be saved. She was the glory of life.

She was about to laugh and tell Jack to switch the channel when the preacher man filled the entire screen. His face came within inches of the camera.

“You are broken,” he said, pointing into living rooms across the country - his imaginary audience.

She felt the current of these three words break into her house and circle the room furiously before landing in Jack’s psyche. The air was charged with the weight of condemnation. Jack slumped. His eyes shifted down and his jaw slacked. She served dinner to herself. He went to bed without saying goodnight.

Grace stayed awake long into the night. The stars shone brightly through the bedroom window, cast long shadows along the closet door. She thought of the seven years she had spent with him. She should know him, know his core. Those days when everything was serendipitous were wisps of thin memories in her mind. She felt the darkness now. She placed her hands on his back while he was sleeping and tried to absorb the feeling of foreboding that had wrapped him like a cloak. The moon rose over the eastern mountains and she fell into fitful sleep. She awoke as dawn spread her thin purple fingers through the black sky. The bed was empty. She was cold. He was gone.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Chapter 2

~ new mexico ~

Grace met Jack during her sophomore year in college at North Tome University. He was all height and length and smile. He knew the secrets to the world. His laugh grabbed her attention and held it; she was caught between terror and a sigh. Not her type, though. The ones she was attracted to were intellectual, quiet, newspaper-at-breakfast types who washed her in warm comfortable waves of stability. Most days though, she preferred to be alone. She could do so much without a man, why in the world would she want one? Sex was easy to come by, intimacy a waste of valuable time.

North Tome University, a collection of small schools within one organized unit, had about 1200 students on the rural campus at any given time. Most of them lived on campus in scattered dorms and group houses. The community was tight even though the students came from all over the Southwest and Midwest regions. North Tome was known for the J. Smith School of Agriculture and the Founder’s School of Liberal Arts. Those programs were nationally recognized by the Princeton Review. There was a very small Behavioral Sciences department that was recognized as well. Very few students conferred degrees in the sciences, but a small percentage left their mark on the Psychology Department. Jack was one of those few.

The first day Grace saw him, he was kicking a soccer ball with his friend in the quad talking loudly about Anders Gayle, his Abnormal Psych professor. Other students milled around, enjoying the cool autumn afternoon weather.

“The reason why Gayle can rant in front of his classes for hours on end is because he’s his own case study. Abnormal as they come.” He kicked the ball down the long grass through the makeshift goal. The ball careened through the opening between the backpacks. “Oh yeah, score!” Jack dropped to his knees and fell back, his body poised victorious.

“You’re just pissed ‘cause he calls you out on your bullshit theories of what is considered normal in society.” Aaron, Jack’s shadow and childhood best friend, chased the ball and tossed it back over his head.

“What can I say? I’m fucked up. But I’m not as fucked up as he is. He’s one loud dude. And he never stays still. I think twitching was a pre-req for his position,” he laughed.

“True. But you like to aggravate him – he’s a challenge to you.” Aaron dropped down to next to Jack.

Jack gave him a high five.

Grace watched him, shifting her eyes over the rough corners of her book. He looked harmless lying in that bucolic field. She felt delicious, excited to be spying on this man-boy who fluttered in her mind. She held her breath, needing to watch his next move, how he brushed his arm slowly back and forth along the grass. This was her moment of weakness. Her fate was almost palpable.

She sat there for a few more minutes noticing the cumulus clouds as they moved through the complicated sky, stringing dark gray strands across dusk’s dome. She felt quiet inside. A strong sense of peace had fallen over her.

Once, when she was nine, her aunt took her to the mall in Albuquerque to get her yearly pictures taken. Her dark brown hair was turned up at the ends; her blue eyes shone virtue. Aunt Gina had dressed her in green corduroys, her downy red and white sweater, and soft black boots. Gina wanted her to look pretty for the annual Christmas card. It was the last year that Gina could convince her to willingly participate.

Grace fidgeted in the waiting room, hoping her hair looked perfect and her clothes were ok. Gina told her to relax several times before her name was called. She was next.

When Grace sat down in front of the mottled gray picture screen, the lanky guy behind the camera told her to smile big and say “green cheese.” Something in his voice coaxed her guard down and her lips quickly curled upward. He smiled back, snapped the pictures, and told her that she was a graceful little lady.

“That’s my name,” she had said. “Grace.”

“And what a fitting name it is. Have a good day, Grace.” He smiled again.

She had felt effortless and beautiful in that one instant – like she hadn’t seen tragedy and she was a normal little girl. The ugliness in her heart was gone for just a second.

There in North Tome’s quad, watching Jack toy with the tops of the hayseed tendrils in the grass, she wasn’t far from that simple, 9-year-old feeling.

The breeze blew lightly, soft as a suggestion. Jack sat up and locked Grace in his stare. Her tranquility snapped. She was caught.

Jack didn’t get up right away. He held her gaze before rising languidly. He stretched, then slid toward her bench.


Brown eyes.

“Hi.” Oh God, she thought. Did I just gulp?

“I’m Jack. Jack Esker.”

Nice voice. “Grace Aliano.”

“I know.”

Oh God. How did he know?

“We’re on the way to the SUB for dinner. Wanna join us?” Jack motioned toward the Student Union Building. Aaron rolled his eyes. It was almost completely dark now, past her usual dinner time.

Grace couldn’t find the words to decline. She stood, slow as the cool evening, and followed two steps behind Jack and Aaron.

The two guys talked and laughed throughout dinner, swallowing whole chunks of meatloaf and thick-skin mashed potatoes with dark brown gravy. She pushed her vegetables into the center of her plate, waiting for a flash of brilliance. She needed something to say – nothing forced, just something that fit into the conversation. Instead, she mentally compared herself to her unwanted mashed potatoes. She felt lumpy, like she didn’t belong. She was just begging to be sculpted into something better. She almost grinned at her lame analogy before carrying it a step further. If she was the mashed potatoes, Jack was the meatloaf. She supposed that would make Aaron a tasty side.

Grace stayed quiet. The guys cleaned their plates and picked at hers while talking about various weekend events. She knew of the parties, had planned to go to some with her friends. She willed herself to say something to be part of the conversation. Nothing came to mind.

Jack looked at her as he got up to leave. She grinned and waved goodbye to them, excused herself to the library to do homework. He touched her arm when they left. She sat there for another minute and decided to be bold, to follow and converse, to be part of something again.

The night was cold now. Stars glittered in the twilight. The moon already hung crescent shaped in the Eastern sky. It was past its prime this month and already waning.

She stayed in step with Jack. He encouraged her with questions as they crossed the campus. She answered simply at first, then in length. She was slow Tuesday jazz and he was her warm red raincoat.

Jack and Aaron’s dorm room smelled like fresh earth, dark wood and soap. To this day, the scent of a new bar of Ivory sends her back to that mild September evening when she was content to just sit there, listening to Jack pluck his guitar and sing in a whispery voice. By midnight, they had moved on to talk about the ways of the universe. Aaron had left, returned and finally turned out his lights around two in the morning. Jack lit candles, talked a little about his hometown and then asked for her life story. She gave him the usual – grew up in North Tome, lived with her Aunt Gina and Uncle Alfonso, decided to go to North Tome University for the excellent English and photography classes and the degree in liberal arts.

“Where are your parents?”

She surprised herself by not looking away. It was then she told him about the accident.

She was seven when it happened. Screeching tires, sirens, flashbulb pops of light. She hears the voices still though she can’t make out what they are saying. Grace closed her eyes and told him the about that fated night when her life changed and time had a new definition. Most people measured in months, years. Not Grace. Now, everything was either before the accident or after.

She stared up at his ceiling, careful to sidestep the well of emotion that threatened to overflow. She told it matter-of-factly. Her dad had yanked the wheel, but it was too late. Her mom had turned to face her, said it would be ok. Lina, Grace’s mother, had reached back and found Grace’s hand a split second before impact. There fingertips broke contact, hands were wrenched in opposite directions.

She remembered the startled screams. Who was screaming? Was it her mom? Grace didn’t realize until years later that she was the one who screamed until help arrived. She remembers the cool air, how it broke through the trees in sporadic bursts. It was angry, stilted. She looked around but only caught one glimpse of the aftermath. It was enough. She still sees their snapped and broken figures joined with cold black asphalt. She remembers nothing after that until Gina arrived with a fleece blanket and soothing words.

“That’s my story.” She didn’t meet his gaze.

Grace felt exhausted. She had just confessed her secret identity. She was unreliable – not to be trusted with the sanctity of life.

“The intersection is about 5 miles from here, in North Tome.” She thought that would help close the conversation. She needed to shut down now.

“Why didn’t you leave? You don’t have to see the source of your pain on a regular basis.” He thought he was employing good psychology now. He had a diagnosis, the cure was to leave.

“I can never leave. They’re here. New Mexico is home.”

He said nothing. Her eyes closed. Grace fell asleep on the overstuffed brown chair in the corner wearing Jack’s sweatshirt.

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Sunday, November 27, 2005

Chapter 3

~ terra firma ~

Even the beautiful sunsets in the altitudes of New Mexico couldn’t compare to the streaks of wild color Grace saw on her first trip to Arizona. During the week between Christmas and New Years, she spent the late afternoons outside watching the sun begin its descent in to the endless Arizona horizon. The hours between 5:00 and 6:00pm were filled with impossible hues, patterned clouds and undisturbed stillness. It was as if the troubles of the world ceased to exist so that the sun could have a quiet departure from the busy day.

The rich blues of the sky faded into purples, streaked with lines of clouds in explosive oranges and pinks straight from an artist’s palette. The firebombs of color were different each evening – sometimes varying shades of yellows claimed the horizon, other times tangerine fused with amber and lavender blushes. Always, the sun left a thin, brilliant, golden line along the mountain horizon for a split second each day before vanishing altogether.

One evening, as she emerged to the front patio, she thought the mountains were on fire. Strokes of short clouds behind the edges of the mountains were brushed up in short, angry wisps. The intense reds – brick, ruby, black cherry – stitched together the jumbled heaps of orange and hints of mottled blue. She gasped at first, her skin electric and alive with the danger of dusk.

The desert creatures stretched their heads out from hiding places and coyotes loped down dry ravines. Their night was just beginning after their daytime slumber. Crickets sang and cicadas strummed, the desert quail scurried across the desert paths along the mountain toward the saguaro they called home.

She wanted to be nocturnal, to emerge at dusk when the world folded in upon itself. With her history of insomnia, she felt she knew the night intimately. Now, she was getting to know the nights in Esker – becoming an expert in fact. In the made up guest room, under layers of white sheets and a down comforter, she woke in the quiet hours between midnight and four, and translated the shadows that stretched across the bedroom’s ceiling. Tick. Purr. Click. Tick. Purr. Click. She listened to the black and white clock next to her bed and predicted the time lapse between when she would fall into a fitful sleep and when she would wake again.

The trip to Esker was a jolt to Grace. She was a misfit in the familial hellos, hugs and stories from holidays past. At first, she fidgeted and silenced herself when she felt kernels of words wanting to pop from her throat. This was Jack’s family, not hers.

She wondered why she had listened to her aunt. Gina had encouraged her to go – said she had done her duty to have Christmas with the family; she should spend New Years Eve with the guy who made her giggle and think about important things like how her lipstick looked and whether Vygotsky’s Social Behavior Theory applied to her childhood. Grace thought that Gina, always staunch when it came to family time, just needed to know that Grace was normal. So she went.

Jack greeted her at the surprisingly bustling airport in Tucson, a bunch of red heather and sunflowers in hand, and transported her into the folds of his life. Grace’s eyes opened wide when she first saw the town. The mountains and river valley were wide, expansive. Jack hadn’t told her that his home was so beautiful. The town’s elevation was 3,000 feet above sea level – nothing like the flat, desert wasteland she had first pictured when Jack spoke of his hometown. Driving through the winding roads towards Jack’s parents’ house, she felt moved to the ends of the Earth. There was nothing before now, this enchanting ride into a hidden place felt magical, healing.

The Esker homestead was located in a different dimension. Built in the late 1700’s, Jack’s Spanish ancestors vividly recreated the architecture of their homeland. Mission style arches, windows cut into exterior adobe walls, and wrought iron gates shaped the small, artsy town.

Jack’s ancestors, the Eskeras de Madreon, had settled the town after the Pima Native American tribe Revolt of 1751. The Eskeras built churches, missions, town buildings all in the style of their native roots. By the time Jack’s great, great grandfather was born, the family had adopted the name Esker as their surname. The town was officially founded under the name of Esker in 1802.

With the Mexican War of Independence, Esker officially became part of Mexico for nearly 30 years before the Gadsden Purchase. During this time, the town did not grow rapidly. The family survived on the fortunes from Spain and cultivated the land to grow their own food, raise their own cattle. The familial records from this time are scarce. Most of the documents chronicled births and baptisms and some purchases and trades with transient tribes. A family portrait of the Esker’s was commissioned during this time and showed matriarch and patriarch surrounded by sons and daughters, their spouses and eight grandchildren. The curly-headed infant, dressed in a long white baptism gown, was Jack’s great-grandfather, Alejandro Jack Esker.

After the United States claimed the land in 1853, Jack’s great, great-ancestors, two uncles and his grandfather, founded the Esker Mining & Surplus Depot which attracted people from across the southwest region, and those from the East seeking fortunes. There were many mining towns at this time though Esker seemed to attract more than its fair share of people hoping to strike it rich in the impressive mountains and wide, flowing river. Esker Mining & Surplus did a heavy business during the boon and soon others were coming to set up shop in the serene hamlet between the river and the mountains.

With the addition of added businesses, a new rail station and the newly formed Daily Chronicle, Esker began to attract an affluent population. People who wanted to make the move permanently began to settle in the town and on the outskirts in the hills and mountains. The community continued to grow rapidly. Soon artists and writers began to make their home in Esker and the surrounding Santa Inez Valley region. The affluent needed to have pretty things in their homes and many of the families with a long history in Esker commissioned paintings of their families and the mountains that enclosed their community and made it home.

Esker remained a thriving artist community throughout the 1900’s, and only suffered slightly – unlike most communities – through the Great Depression. Bootlegging alcohol became a past-time of artists to keep the economy strong. People didn’t want for much, even when some surrounding settlements were forced into ghost town status.

The community still drew people who were looking for a different type of life – one away from the vast cities that were growing and changing constantly. Esker became a stable haven for the refugees of city rhythms.

“Wow. I can see why you like it here.” Grace smiled at Jack, took his hand in hers.

“It’s home. Come meet my mom and dad.” He grabbed her brown leather travel bag and held her hand as they ascended the walk.

Introductions weren’t awkward as she feared. In fact, Grace liked his family – they were warm, inviting her into their home with meaningful phrases – “so nice to meet you,” “you are quite a pretty thing,” “Jack says wonderful things about you.” She smiled and nodded, returning the compliments about their hospitality and beautiful home.

“I’m so impressed with the history of the town. Your house is beautiful. Thank you for letting me stay.” Grace turned her face toward Iris, Jack’s mother.

“Would you like the tour?” Iris was gracious. Grace imagined her own mother in that instant. Both were similarly elegant.

Jack’s mother showed Grace the turquoise necklaces from the Pima tribes and the gilded crosses from Spain showcased in the low, spacious library. Paintings, from local artists of the 1800’s graced the Spanish red-tiled hallways. Exposed wood beams in every section of the house were smooth from centuries of oils and dust.

Grace learned that the thriving artist community is one of the main draws of the town. She wasn’t surprised when Iris told her about the influx of tourists and art connoisseurs from around the region that visit in for the fall and spring artist festivals. Grace wanted to visit again too. Grace wanted to live in Esker, miles away from the hills of North Tome. Miles from what she thought was home.

“Here’s where you’ll be sleeping, honey. The bathroom is yours and Gloria’s. Her room is down the hall. Let’s go see if she’s in there.”

Gloria was on the porch outside the double glass doors. The blue sky showed forever today and Gloria was reading a book, her glasses down across the bridge of her nose.

“Mama, this is Grace, Jack’s girl.” Iris made the introductions, hand extended toward her mother-in-law.

Gloria’s eyes rose, gray and delighted. Her lips extended upward, a permanent curved smile rested on her lips. She invoked years of sweet memories, daring adventures and shared secrets. No wonder Jack adored his grandmother so much. She was perfect.

“It’s so nice to meet you Grace.” She extended a worn hand, paper thin skin. Her grip was firm.

“Nice to meet you too, Gloria. Jack has told me so much about you.”

“Why don’t you join me?” She motioned to the empty chairs on her tiled patio. She had a carafe of coffee next to her cup on the small glass table.

Jack left to retrieve two more mugs as Iris excused herself to attend to dinner.

“Sit, sit, child. I don’t bite… hard.” Her eyes were full of mirth.

Grace laughed, feeling her anxious energy slip from her stomach.

Gloria crossed her strong hands in her lap and caught Grace in her kind, level gaze. “You are the girl my grandson will marry, Grace. Mark my words. I feel it in the energy in the air. Don’t you?”

She uncrossed her hands and stirred her coffee with a small, silver spoon.

“Um, I… I really hadn’t thought much about it. Jack certainly is a nice guy though.” She wasn’t sure whether she should think of it. Marriage never crossed her mind.

“Grace,” Gloria began, “he is a firecracker. He will be grounded with you. You two are kindred.”

As if on cue, Jack stepped from Gloria’s bedroom to the patio and poured two more cups of coffee. He flopped down directly across from her. Grace looked at him, bent around the white wooden chair. Even sitting down he looked tall, cocky from head to long toes. His dark hair had a confident wave. His brown eyes weren’t hard, lashes were prominent and strong. She loved to hear him talk – swallowed his words like smooth brandy. He popped the self-doubt balloon she had carried for most of her life.

It was the one and only time that Grace would think that Gloria was wrong about something. Grace didn’t ground Jack. Jack pulled Grace back to this world and made it something worth living.

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Thursday, November 24, 2005

Chapter 4

~ lughnasadh ~

An outsider to Esker would never know that the Lughnasadh Festival would be the last time that local faces would be seen until September. The specialty stores in the blocks surrounding the town square were open, chilled air blowing through cracks in the doorways to entice entry. The art galleries housed new shows, sculptures and paintings displayed from local artists who live and create in Esker. Round smiles, even in the stinging afternoon heat, were abundant. People ate fresh strawberry ice cream ladled from frozen silver tureens in the sprawling, western lobby of the Copper Mountain Inn. Strolling musicians played after sunset in the town square. The white lights on every storefront glittered invitingly, illuminating dusty walkways.

This year, the majority of the town had turned out for the festival. It had been an unusually bearable summer to date with temperatures in the low nineties. Iris and Ernie, Jack’s parents, had met them for dinner at Scarlet’s Steak House before sauntering off to enjoy the evening together. Over Angus strip steaks and sizzling cherry cobbler drenched in vanilla bean ice cream, they all talked about their underlying hopes that August would pass by unnoticed, without incident. They dreamed of a “Blue August,” local words for when the temperature didn’t kill the trees and people remained stable and friendly. Although they were rare, they still happened every seven to nine years.

As she and Jack sat on the one of the benches outside of Scarlet’s, she felt distant from the earlier conversation. A torrid wave of trouble was building just below the unblemished surface waiting to pop and explode. Grace didn’t hold much hope for a peaceful month.

In the orange-brown dusk, children played tag and splashed each other in fountains that spurted streams of cool water from nickel plated nozzles in the ground. Their laughter was full and round, more prominent than the bronze moon rising over the shadowed valley. Parents and passersby watched them squeal and turn in the dancing flow. Every year, the water ceased its journey skyward sharply at midnight, ending carefree celebrations and beginning the hazy time between August and when life returned to normal.

Grace watched Jack’s face as he surveyed the town center festival. His jaw was tight, eyes darting quickly through the forms in the crowd. He was always watching, ever looking for someone or something to surprise him. She knew that he often didn’t feel like his life held promise – that everything was done to death and the hope for new adventures had slipped away. Jack looked forward to August when he had a trip scheduled. He looked for escapes, secretly planned them each winter and sprung them on Grace sometime in May. He wanted to be away, breathed a sigh of relief that Grace had to stay and tend to life in Esker.

Tomorrow, he’d wake up with the sun, kiss Grace on her exposed neck and slip away for three weeks. This time, he was heading to Monterrey to work on a sleep disorder study at California State University. He could analyze the breathing rhythms of strangers while ignoring the insomnia of his wife.

Grace resented these trips to destinations untraveled. She wanted to be the one to leave at dawn and return weeks later with renewed faith that everything was better than she once thought. Jack loved her more when he returned; she loved him less.

As much as Grace hated his trips, she felt it was better that he was miles away rather than here in Esker. August was not a busy time for him and if he stayed, he watched television. Last year he was gone the first two weeks of the month. The other two he spent splayed on the sofa, drinking beer and watching re-runs on cable. Trips were preferred to him sprawled in the living room staring wide-eyed at that stupid box.

Like clockwork, the city shut down at midnight. Grace and Jack drove home in silence, up the curving road. Cold air-conditioning blew from the car vents. It hadn’t reached 100 yet but Grace could feel it on the horizon.

It was quiet when they entered the house. Jack rattled his keys, dropped them into the small round basket by the door. Grace undressed in the hallway, trailing her clothes behind her toward the master bedroom. The sheets on the bed were cool, perfectly straight. She settled back on the pillows and waited for him. They made love quickly, barely kissing. He didn’t meet her eyes. Grace stared at the exposed beams in the ceiling, finding her favorite curved patterns by connecting the square, hammered nails. He rocked and grunted, she thought of what would happen if the support beams broke. Would the roof cave in? Would everything stand just the same? Were those beams decorative or did they really secure the foundation of her home?

He rolled off her, kissed her cheek. Within seconds, his breath fell into a deep rhythm. She hated his soft, purring snore. He sounded like he was breathing through soup.

Grace pulled on a white cotton shift and got out of bed. Her room was illuminated by the lights of the night. She would not sleep tonight unless she completely exhausted herself. She needed to do something with her hands, her active body.

Her creative projects mocked her – whispered to her that she had no ability to undertake such impressive ventures. The story she had burning inside of her fizzled out after her first three paragraphs. She couldn’t write – wouldn’t write – when she felt bruised and untalented. She wouldn’t knit either. The last time she worked on a sweater in the middle of the night she closed the neck hole and ripped a hole in the thick yarn, mid-pocket. She needed a menial task.

She could scrub the small hill of dishes in the kitchen sink. The clattering would be merciless; Jack would yell. She settled for hanging the laundry on the stretched line in the backyard. Laundry was the best option – less noise.

She pulled white sheets and shirts from the top of the gray machine. The linens smelled damp, almost uriney. When did she run this load through? Was it today or last week? She doubted that hanging these on the line would diminish the smell.

Grace wasn’t going to run the load again. She was out of detergent, out of patience for rote tasks. Cart the clothes, thick towels, and heavy rugs to the laundry room in the back of the house. Load the washer with soap and hot water. Transfer to the line. Fold. Put away. Use and wear. Throw into the wide, wicker hamper. Repeat.

He was surprised when he didn’t have pants to wear to work. He joked that his laundry slave didn’t appear that week. But why should she? He never helped her take care of the house, their life, her dreams. She dropped the basket onto the short, crisp lawn and grabbed the clothespins from the white cloth bag. She clipped the corner of a sheet. Why was she the responsible one? Did he even notice her misery, her dry laughter? Didn’t he know she had no hope?

She clipped the center of the sheet. The dank smell subsided in the fresh night breeze. The moonflowers in the corner of her garden turned up toward light beaming through the black sky.

Assimilation. She wanted to adapt to Esker – this lovely town where free spirits left behind their knotted duties and tedious tasks to explore juicy adventures and create new art. At first, she picked up the rhythms, the cadence of the community. She began to feel whole. She was stepping out of her comfortable life, living dangerously with art and sculpture. Her journal was filled with furious strokes, therapeutic rants that demanded she accept the fact that her life was beautiful and essential.

Slowly, he tore that away from her. He needed her to drop her paint brush into water immediately to attend to his needs. Her story didn’t matter, journal writing could wait. She cooked dinner, did the laundry, packed his clothes and personal belongings for trips, flew with him when he traveled for speaking engagements. Posed on his arm and pretended to care about what his psychologist peers said.

She clipped the last segment of the queen size sheet and grabbed his shirt from the basket at her feet.

Grace wasn’t free like the decadent artists in their styled communes. She was trapped, fully entangled with someone who didn’t know her. Didn’t see her as more than a warm body to do his eternal bidding. In their past, when their world was sweet and fresh, he saw more in her than she saw in herself. He coddled her, cradled her, pushed her to her limits to respond and create and be more than what she imagined. Now she was as bleached as his undershirts. No color in her future. He folded her like laundry and put her on a shelf.

She continued to clip clothes to the taut line, a bitter taste rising into her throat.

There was a time when she knew him so well. When they were in college at North Tome University, Grace practically lived in Jack and Aaron’s dorm room and then their apartment during senior year. The three of them would stay up until hours that shouldn’t be seen, talking about everything and about nothing.

She thought they knew so much. It always seemed like they could change the world. No one had analyzed the problems of the world quite like they had. They debated pregnancy and abortion and came up with solutions for world peace. They decided to teach English in Prague after graduation. Then, they changed their minds and thought she should volunteer with the Peace Corps. They could travel – backpack around Europe. Together they could change life on the planet.

Sometimes, when they weren’t making the world a better place to dream about, they exchanged intimate stories. Jack and Aaron talked about the time they ditched a day during spring semester of their junior year in high school, hopped the bus to Tucson and went to the County Fair. Aaron got caught and had to serve a Saturday suspension. Jack told Principal Elias that he went to the Future Business Leaders of America conference at a high school in Tubac, the neighboring town. Aaron then called the principal the next day pretending to be the FBLA sponsor from Tubac High School and Elias had excused him from a day of excruciating detention on a Saturday. Jack was the charismatic, quick thinker. Aaron was too honest.

Jack always wanted to explore the inner depths of human development so she and Aaron would crawl into their minds and discuss what constituted normal behavior. Aaron fed off of world headlines – hated bureaucracy. He needed to rage against the establishment, to explore the options for changing the world. They discussed solutions to national issues – came up with their own three person government. Grace and Jack had elected Aaron their President and Grace was the VP. Jack said he was content to be the head of the World Health Organization and a personal advisor to the President. The three of them would laugh for hours and conduct conversations referring to one another as if they were really elected into their roles.

Grace recalled one early conversation between her and Jack. They were lying in bed, watching the stars out Jack’s high window.

“What if I came to the White House one day and saw that you and Aaron had decided to get together? I mean, a President and Vice President have to work very close together… you could end up liking him more than you like me.” Jack had nuzzled her neck and put his hands under her shirt.

Grace had laughed. “Yeah, right. Who would want the President when she could have the leader of the WHO? Besides, you’re going to be a doctor someday. Don’t doctors know more about certain things?” She was deliberately suggestive, sliding her arms around his neck.

That night was the first time he told her that he loved her. It was natural, uncomplicated and perfect. She hadn’t yet spoken the words, but now knew her feelings were confirmed. He also asked her to spend some of the holiday break with him at his parents’ house in Arizona.

“They want to meet you. I told my mom about you.” The words swarmed in her head, a powerful memory in the early morning air.

That time was so innocent. They were new to each other. They mixed their lives, from music to movies. Her reality morphed into his. He reflected her light.

She wasn’t meant to be a tarnished version of her true self. She wondered if they would be happier without one another. She pulled him sideways, off track. He smothered her.

By the time she had composted her thoughts of him, light was visible on the horizon. She fell onto the right side of the bed. He’d be leaving soon. She would be asleep by then.

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Saturday, November 19, 2005

Chapter 5

~ midnight knocks ~

Grace awoke with a start. She had been dreaming of red, hazy moonlight and round ripe fruit dropping from thick green trees. She was trying to catch the oranges and lemons and purple plums, but they kept falling through her white nightgown. In the distance, she could hear the constant strum of hoof beats. White stallions galloped and charged toward her back gate. She was spinning, trying to catch the sweet, spherical fruit that was always just out of her reach. She was helpless at it crashed to the desert floor with a sick thud, bursting open and revealing long, thin maggots. It was then that she started to wretch in her dream. She was just about to throw up, doubled over in the place that resembled her back yard, when she woke with a start. Her heart raced. Grace could have sworn she heard knocking. It was probably just the pounding in her chest that woke her.

She took a deep, staccato breath, trying to calm herself. It had been three days since Jack had left for his California trip. He had called her only twice – short phone calls that didn’t leave much time for questions or kind, sweet nothings.

When she heard the noise again, it was unmistakable. Someone was banging on her front door. She looked at the green glow from the bedside clock. 12:24. No one she knew would be at the front door at 12:24.

She dove for the gun in Jack’s bedside table and clicked off the safety. She’d go to the window in the front bathroom and peer out. She didn’t even have to pass the front door for that.

She quickly crept down the hall, her thin shift damp with nervous sweat. Through the bathroom window, she saw a crumpled frame, an arm she knew. It was Aaron.

Securing the safety on the 9mm in her hand, she dropped the gun next to the toilet and ran to the front door. She slid the latch open.

“What the hell, Aaron. You scared me to death. I almost shot…” Grace flicked on the entry light and stopped mid-sentence. Aaron was bent, folded like he was injured. When he looked up at her, his face was crumpled, old.

“Aaron? What’s the matter?” Grace pulled him into the house and latched the door behind her.

He didn’t speak, just looked at Grace and sank into the padded white chair in the corner of the living room.


“Where’s Jack?” Aaron was nearly whispering, his voice was so low.

“California. What’s wrong?” Grace was shivering now even though her blood was running faster.

“She’s gone, Gracie. Gone.” Aaron didn’t look up.


“My mom.” He looked up then, the tears threatened to break free.

Grace felt her heart drop into her stomach. Lucia Verrado was the nicest woman she had ever met. She felt hot tears build in her eyes.

“What? Are you… how? When?”

“Just now. I just left St. Patrick’s. She was pronounced…I had to leave – I couldn’t stay.” She hugged him as her tears flowed.

He continued.

“She was coming home from Tucson – Art Council meeting – he didn’t see her. It was a truck, Gracie. A semi.”

Flashes from her own childhood accident came streaming forth like a forgotten movie. Her mother’s gasp, her father’s tight grip on the steering wheel. The yelling. The squeal of the overwrought brakes. Then, the earsplitting crunch. The wailing of the sirens. The coal black night. The shocking blues and reds of the emergency vehicles. The noise in her head that she heard for weeks upon weeks after the crash.

She knew what Lucia saw before dying.

“I’m so sorry, Aar,” she sobbed.

His grip was stronger than death. She felt hot tears cascade down her bare shoulder, leaving wet streaks that marked her flesh before drying. His cracked aura pulled at her, consumed the hope that this was unreal. He continued to spin and drown, breaking off pieces of words like unfair and death and scream.

He sat in the chair, Grace half draped across his lap, until his body stopped shaking and he could breathe without crying. He drew himself partially upright and leaned forward. Grace let go of his back and kneeled on the floor. She pressed her cheek against his and whispered another apology. She wasn’t sure why she was apologizing, only that she wished someone had said to her when her parents died.

Aaron nodded.

“Let’s go call Jack. He’ll want to know.” She took Aaron’s hand, pulled him from the chair and led him to the kitchen.

“Where’s the damn phone?” She was forever leaving the phone in random rooms. She hit the call button and Aaron poured himself a short glass of brandy.

Grace motioned for him to get her one too as she went to the back sitting porch to retrieve the handset. He followed her out. She was already dialing.

She tried Jack’s cell phone first but it went straight to voice mail.

“Goddammit Jack.” She went in to retrieve the number for the hotel from the refrigerator and returned to the porch.

“Westin La Paloma, how may I direct your call?”

“Room 801, please.” Grace reached for her emergency pack of Marlboro Lights. Aaron took the pack from her hand, tapped out two, and lit them.

“I’m sorry; there is no answer in that room. Can I try a different extension for you or would you like to leave a message?”

“Yes, please leave a message to call home as soon as possible. Thank you.” Grace hung up the phone. It was nearly 1:00 in the morning. Jack was not in his room.

“Not there.” She inhaled the cigarette deeply and looked over at Aaron’s face.

He looked up at her through red-rimmed eyes. Through the tendrils of smoke curling toward the sky, she saw shades of Lucia in his gray eyes, the honey brown waves at the curve of his neck. Her eyes misted over again. Lucia’s face swam before her spilling eyes. She shouldn’t be dead. And Jack should know about it.

Her control diminished. She began to sob. Her tears were as caustic as acid rain. She wept for Lucia, Aaron, their family. She wept for her parents and her family and the crash that separated them from her so long ago. She wept for her dying marriage.

Grace had to move. She crushed out her cigarette in the orange, kidney shaped ashtray. She was unbalanced as she climbed out of her chair. The sky was filled with pinpoints of stars, the waxing moon. It was nearly full.

Aaron followed her out the desert path into the cool grass. He gulped from the bottle of brandy and handed it to her before dropping down, cross-legged, next to her. He brushed his hand down her calf to rest at her left ankle. His hand was smooth, piercing her senses.

“I just don’t understand, Gracie. She left this morning – she stopped by my office on the way to Tucson. She came in, laughing, arms outstretched, begging for coffee with cream. I joked with her about her caffeine addiction. She told me that dad was going to go with her but had a client meeting come up at the last minute. It was so normal…” His voice trailed off. A pack of baby coyotes yelped and sang in the near distance. They moved closer with every breath. The moon continued its bright, translucent stare.

“I know how you felt now – when your parents were killed.” The night was so still. Aaron took a deep breath before finishing his statement. “They were there, then gone, in a matter of seconds. Right at the end of an ordinary day.”

The words pricked her insides. Simple words stung like a thousand bees.

She took a swig from the bottle and sat beside him on the grass. The pack of coyotes moved closer until they paused outside the back gate. Rich mewls and synchronized yelps became louder as they harmonized their instinctive cries.

Grace’s heart beat faster. “They’re babies. Can you hear? They’re looking for food.”

For a brief moment, peace fell onto his face. He needed to feel calm, composed. He took the bottle from her and swallowed a few more mouthfuls of the hot liquid. She took a sip, closed her eyes, and concentrated on the coyote symphony. The breeze carried their song through the valley; she could hear echoes off the mountain walls.

Seconds slipped into minutes; the coyotes moved further and further away. Her head was light from the brandy. The rest of her body felt limp, heavy. One more gulp and she’d let Aaron have the last of it.

He took the bottle from her and tilted it back. The coyotes were at least a mile away now; Grace couldn’t make out their distinct voices in the rabble.

Aaron exhaled.

“Thank you, Grace.” His gravelly voice was low and still.

She nodded at him and put her clumsy arms around his neck. “We’re always here for you, Aaron. Jack and me.”

It felt weird to say his name. He wasn’t here. He couldn’t be reached. He didn’t know that during this instant his best friend and thinly-clothed wife were tangled in the grass together. That thought sliced through Grace, making her shiver slightly.

“Cold?” Aaron’s face was less than an inch from hers. She was thinking of his emptiness, how it echoed her own.

“C’mon, Gracie. You’ve got goose bumps. Let’s go.” His words were only slightly slurred.

Aaron stood up and extended his hand to her.

She stood awkwardly, willing her nipples to warm and not poke through the thin fabric of her gown. She trailed behind him toward the patio. The moon had already passed its peak in the sky and was reaching for the western horizon. It was well past 3:00, but she felt like the night had slowed. She felt connected to everything she touched – the green-brown grass under her heels; the cool, pressed metal of the gun; the level surface of the iron door handle; Aaron’s smooth hand on her ankle; the warm brandy as it slid down her throat; her rolled, burning cigarette; the flat, thin paper with Jack’s scrawled writing of the hotel phone number. But there was no connection to Jack, just a dial tone and a message to call home.

Grace grabbed the empty brandy glasses off the porch table, clinking them together. The sound broke the dark thoughts that clouded her mind.

“You can stay here, if you want.” She colored slightly. “In the guest room, I mean. We have a guest room.”

Inside, Grace dropped the glasses into the clean, stainless sink.

“I’m ok.” His frame was slightly askew.

“Come help me put sheets on the bed.”

The hallway to the guest room was on the opposite side of the house. She pulled the sage linens and a down comforter from the closet. Aaron excused himself to the bathroom.

She was just finishing her struggle with the last corner on the thick, padded mattress when he appeared in the doorway, gun in hand.

“Do you always keep your gun by the toilet?”

“Only when someone knocks on the door in the middle of the night.” She paused and finished the corner. “Sorry, you don’t have a light in here. Jack was going to replace before Lughnasadh but didn’t get to it.”

“The moon is bright enough for now.” He reached behind her grab the comforter, knocking her onto the bed.

He tossed the comforter onto the end of the bed and pulled her up.

“You ok?”

She felt his gray eyes on her in the semi-darkness. No. She wasn’t ok and neither was he. What she wanted in that instant wasn’t ok. Nothing was ok.

“Yes – fine.” She hugged him quickly and moved toward the door. It was an intimate dance around desire, fidelity and need.


The music in her head stopped. They were not waltzing anymore.

“Aaron.” She didn’t want him to stop, but knew that was wrong.

“Sorry, Gracie.” She heard him sink onto the bed. “I don’t know what I’m saying. Just lost and sad and hurting – and know you are too.”

The sheets rustled. She was quiet until he was safely tucked away, unable to jump up and devour her. She turned to face him, needed the possibility of him to drown reality out for her. Grief was hard to hear in the midst of static.

“I know, Aaron.” She stepped back into the room. “I can’t believe Lucia isn’t here – it isn’t fair to you. Selfishly, I’m angry because Jack hasn’t called. And I’m embarrassed for feeling…” She didn’t finish her thought.

Aaron raised the covers on the bed and patted the space beside him. “All innocent, Gracie.”

She laid down beside him. He tucked her against him and closed his eyes. The moonlight was all but gone now. Somewhere in the distance, the coyote pups sang.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Chapter 6

~ groundswell ~

Swirls of faint color pushed night into a memory. Aaron still slept beside her, his breathing slow and deep. The turning of her stomach and slight throb in her head made her reluctant to sit up. She shouldn’t be awake yet; the light in the bedroom was still a hazy blue. The top of the sun hadn’t even peeked over the eastern horizon.

Grace loved this time of morning. Too often she watched the night sky progress from dark to soft black, through dim gray and into the watered blue before she began to feel drowsy. Usually, by the time the sky ripened with the peachy violet shades of morning, she was drowsy enough to fall into a deep sleep. Insomnia was her gift – it allowed her to think and create in a veil of secrecy. Since she was young, Grace used the night as security. It was her time; no one else could lay claim to it. She used it – all of it – for writing, for painting, for musing, for catching up with her life. There was always so much to do, and daylight was so limiting. It was functioning in the daylight hours that was most difficult.
She was reluctant to give up her time alone, this time when she felt most independent and her foundation was intact.

As the room grew lighter, Grace felt more than reluctance. She dreaded this daybreak. She wanted to stay here, in this moment of semi-darkness where the painted lines between right and wrong were ambiguous and the world outside the bedroom was unreal. She wanted to press herself against Aaron and pretend it was still the middle of the night.

Instead, she slipped from underneath the thin white sheet and steadied herself on the planked floor. Her stomach lurched, knees quivered slightly. The dull throb in the back of her head moved forward through every finger of nerve until she could hear nothing but the steady pound of her hangover. She wouldn’t be able to throw up gracefully and panicked at the thought of waking Aaron in this way. She prayed to reach the master bathroom on the other side of the house before the hot, acidic vomit surged.

She had taken one step when the phone began ringing. She felt her throat burn as she started to gag. Aaron turned over, saw her pale face and shot out of bed to grab the silver waste basket in the corner of the room. He held her hair as she cupped the bucket to her chin. She could smell the brandy from the night before, making her wretch fiercely. The phone stopped ringing – she knew it was Jack. Humiliation coiled in her belly as the last of the brandy fought its way to the surface. Red shame heated her face as she gulped at the cool air blowing through the open floor vent.

“Ok, kiddo?” Aaron ran her fingers through her sleep tangled hair and rested his hand on her back.

She nodded and tried to stand.

“Whoa. I got it.” He took the can from her grip. She heard him as he flushed the toilet and ran soapy water into the can.

Her breath was steady now, her face almost cool.

“Good morning.” Aaron stood in the doorway, the dried silver bucket in his hands. His eyes were wide open, somber.

“Morning.” She looked up at him, managed a week smile and stood. Her stomach rolled, but was empty. She didn’t trust herself to speak in longer sentences.

“I’m going to get us some water.” Aaron set the can in the corner headed toward the kitchen.

Grace found her footing and followed him. She grabbed the phone off the counter and sat down on the window bench in the breakfast nook. This was her favorite place in the house – she could see the mountains, the prickly cacti and the morning desert daisies through her picture window here.

Aaron brought the glasses of water and sat across from her. “Jack?”

She nodded. His message was short, but pleasant. Had he just arrived back at his hotel room? Was he awake with someone all night as well?

Her fingers dialed the number for the Westin. “801, please.”

Jack picked up the phone on the first ring. “Grace?”

At least he had the name right.

“Something happened, Jack. We’ve been waiting for you to call.” She looked up at Aaron. His head was in his hands, gray eyes fixed on her. “There was an accident last night. Lucia’s gone.” Grace paused.

“What do you mean ‘gone’ Grace?” The disbelief that had belonged to her the night before had now slammed into Jack. “Like dead?” His voice was faint through the receiver.

“Yes. Jack – Aaron’s still here. We’ve been awake all night…” Aaron touched her arm and nodded his agreement that she said the correct thing. “Here, talk to Aaron.” She handed the phone over and moved her arm. She needed to brush her teeth, to gain some internal strength and momentum. She knew the day would be a long and emotional. A few minutes alone to start the day would be a blessing.

“Hey bro…”

Aaron was tight-lipped, in control again. She knew he was devastated. He knew he needed to be strong to plan the funeral for his father and two sisters.

Jack and Aaron needed to talk. Grace went into her room and ran tepid water for her shower. After scrubbing her teeth, she climbed into the wide garden tub and let the water drench her body, soak her thoughts. She cleared her mind, forced herself to think about nothing, especially not Aaron. The rivulets ran down her, splashing to her feet before the puddles circled toward the drain. It was bright in the bathroom – the skylight in the ceiling filtered the white light over the shower, into Grace. She breathed deeply. The cool water settled her stomach, eased the noise in her head.

She was sure Jack would come home today. She didn’t want him there – didn’t need him to return so quickly, to confuse her further. He was sour when he left, she wanted him to return sweet. News of Lucia would make him sit and stare into nowhere, turn him silent and sullen. He would be helpful to Aaron before he shut the rest of the world out of his thoughts. He was always there for Aaron, just not her.

She commanded herself to stop thinking about Jack. She knew she’d begin to feel sorry for herself if she did; she’d become even more meek and dependent, two things she hated more than anything else. She forced herself to remember when she liked herself, before life became a series of things she hated. For years, she stood there watching herself fade in the mirror. Something needed to turn.

She closed her eyes and faced the shower head. The water splashed her upturned face. She was sure Aaron was waiting for her to emerge so they could talk about his conversation with Jack. She inhaled and exhaled deeply one more time before turning off the shower. Her stomach was calm; she didn’t need to make herself sick by continuing to think of her shower thoughts.

The white terry towel felt soft on her skin. Quickly, she wrapped her hair and found a pair of crisp tan summer shorts and a white cotton t-shirt. She’d go with Aaron today – wherever he needed her, she’d be there. And she’d force herself to be soft-spoken to Jack.

She opened her bedroom door, surprised to see that Aaron had already showered and found one of Jack’s old North Tome t-shirts in the laundry room.

“I figured Jack wouldn’t mind.”

“That’s fine, Aaron.” She stepped out into the kitchen area. “Hungry?”


“Me neither.” They both chuckled softly when she touched her tender stomach.

“It’s late enough now to go over to my folks house. I’m going to head over there, check on my dad and Ellen – see if they got a hold of Sarah and Tyler.” He was always so concerned with his sisters. Even after his baby sister had married Tyler, he still checked up on her weekly, wanted to make sure she and Ty were happy and well. Ellen was three years younger than Aaron, though she often assumed the role of big sister. She was constantly asking Aaron when he was going to settle down and she wanted to make sure that he dated the right women. Ellen often joked that Aaron should have scooped Grace up before Jack saw her.

Aaron broke Grace’s reverie. “Come with me?”

“I had planned on it.” She picked up her straw purse and slipped her sunglasses onto her head. She locked the front door.

“Let’s take my car – you can leave yours here.” She noticed how he parked sideways, half on the curb, half off. To Grace, last night seemed so long ago.

She was driving through the winding valley road when she asked him. “So, when’s Jack coming home?” She didn’t really want to know, just wanted to be prepared when he showed later today.

“He’s not. He’ll take the 1:00 flight on Thursday from Monterrey to Tucson. There are no direct flights today. He’d have to go to Phoenix, rent a car and drive down.”

Grace had forgotten that there were only directs from Monterrey two days a week. That gave her two days before he’d be home.

“He said he’d fly home tonight, after his presentation today, but I told him to wait. The funeral won’t be until Friday, at the earliest.” He looked out the passenger window as he said this. “He needs to wrap up this first wave of studies anyway – he’ll be done Thursday morning. It’s okay with me, he’ll be here when we need him…” His voiced trailed off. Grace silently willed him to face her to no avail. She wanted to read his expression, to see what he needed. Instead, she watched the road and he gazed at the tops of the desert sage bushes as she sped through the valley toward Aaron’s parents’ house.

“Aaron, you know he’ll come today if you need him too.”

“I know.” She waited for him to go on. He didn’t say anything, just leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes.

Instead of pushing him to talk, Grace turned on the radio. It was turned to bluegrass, an alternative station to the rock she enjoyed when she needed to sing loud to release her stress.

Cars lined Acacia Street and up the driveway to the house. Sarah and Tyler’s white Chevy minivan was already pulled halfway up the drive, mere inches from the bumper of Ellen’s Jeep.

Aaron opened his eyes and motioned for her to pull alongside the minivan. “My aunt and uncle are here,” he nodded to the new red Buick at the end of the cul-de-sac, “and so are Kris and Tula from the Council.” Grace knew he referred to the Art Council of Esker, which Lucia ran for the past four years.

“Ready?” She searched his face, touched his leg.

He nodded and got out of the car.

The house was eerily quiet. Muted voices, soft murmurs, hushed cries – these were the sounds of people who knew the truth, who were no longer denying that Lucia was gone.

Through the wide entry way, Grace saw George, Aaron’s father, sitting in his brown leather chair. He looked smaller than usual, didn’t wear his impish grin. He was always so relaxed, confident in his life and focused on those around him, those he loved. To Grace, he looked out of place.

Ellen saw them first, crossed the expanse of the family room and threw herself against Aaron. Grace moved into the room to hug George, even though she didn’t know what to say.

“George,” she leaned into him, wishing for the right words, the right tone of voice.

“Grace.” He returned her hug with slack arms. Thin hands patted her back. “Where’s Jackie?” He referred to Jack’s childhood name. That’s all he ever called him. Jackie.

“California. He’ll be home in time…” She let her voice lapse. “He’ll be home Thursday, can’t get back before then.” She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “What can I do?”

“Nothing, love. Not a damn thing.” He uncrinkled the tissue in his hands and looked down into his lap. She held his shoulder until Aaron came over to him.

Tula stood in the kitchen with Sarah. Grace moved toward them awkwardly. The house where Lucia once thrived was shrouded in spiraling despair. Grace felt herself slip a notch, closer to the place where things ceased to matter and dreams were distant memories.

“I’m so sorry,” she said as she hugged Sarah. “I love your mom, can’t believe…” Grace stopped before she fell again. It wasn’t her mother who died this time. She needed to be solid, to care for the people who have been like family to her for more than a decade.

Tula closed the refrigerator door and came over to put her arm around Grace’s shoulders. “Kris and I brought some food for the next few days.”

“That was so nice of you, Tula.” Grace put her head on Tula’s shoulder and then stood straight. She contemplated the strange dance of death and food. When her mother died, people were constantly bringing cheesy, hearty casseroles and thick, cooked roast beef.

Tula listed off the contents of the refrigerator, juice and soup, cold cuts and sandwich bread. Kris had brought taco casserole and some cut carrots and radishes, just in case someone wanted something substantial or healthy. Grace wondered when Kris had time to cook. It was nearing noon and the accident happened late last night. Ellen must have called her right away. She guessed that she and Aaron weren’t the only ones who didn’t sleep much last night.

Grace knew the food ritual would go on for weeks. People would stop by to check on George, bearing prepared potatoes and browned, whole chickens. The neighbor would stop by with fruit. In the wake of the dead, feed the living.

Since everyone would know the news by the end of the day, Grace figured there would be more food than could fit into the crevices of his oversized refrigerator. Platters of food would be put out over the weekend for the mourning period. People would come and go and some would stay through mealtimes to help feed the family. She knew from experience though that George would end up throwing most of the offerings away after it sat untouched for weeks. And she knew that someone, maybe Tula or Kris, would wash all the dishes and return them to their rightful owners with the sincerest of thanks from the family.

“Gracie – thanks for bringing Aaron.” Ellen came into the kitchen and hugged Grace. “He and dad went into the library to talk about making some arrangements. He told us Jackie is in California still and will be calling a little bit later to check in.” Ellen breezed through the kitchen, not stopping for reality. She opened the refrigerator and poured the celery and carrots onto a tray.

“Ellen, it’s ok. Let me help.” Grace reached for a dish for the dressing.

“I gotta keep going. Grab some plates from up above there, please?” Ellen had already taken out bread and lunchmeat and was setting it artfully on long, wooden sandwich boards.

“I understand.” And Grace did understand. She didn’t stop moving after her mom and dad had died. She had tried to deny the fact that her parents were gone, that she’d never see them, that they wouldn’t be there for anything ever again. When reality crashed into her almost a year later, she didn’t know how to let it go. Gina said she had cried for weeks though Grace couldn’t remember that part. She just remembered writing her daily journal to her mother and asking her advice on everything. She still couldn’t look at her diaries from the time she was nine until she reached high school.

She helped Ellen pile a stack of white plates and silver cutlery on one end of the dining room sideboard. They moved the sandwich trays to the center of the table and put the vegetables at the other end of the sideboard. They moved methodically, like it was natural for them to be displaying food instead of breaking down.

The large oak door continued to open and close, admitting friends and family members from throughout the valley. It occurred to Grace that someone had to make the phone calls to out of state relatives, to Jack’s family.

Since Ellen was the most coherent outside of Aaron, she pulled her away from the people who were gathered around the dining area.

“Ellen, who still needs to be notified?” Grace asked her calmly, like she was talking about serving dinner instead of delivering the news of Lucia’s death.

Ellen stopped moving for a moment. She blinked and looked directly at Grace. Her eyes welled. “All my uncles and aunts know. The cousins know, obviously. Tula and Kris took care of the council members. Did you call Iris and Ernie? And Granny Gloria should know too…”

“I’ll call Jack’s family. Anyone else out of town?” Grace needed to help, to be doing something.

“Check with my Aunt Bobbi, she keeps us all together.” Ellen wiped at a stray tear. “Thanks, Grace.”

By the time Grace found Bobbi, she had already made all the calls to family members who lived out of town. She had also called Jack’s parents who were on their way over to the house.

Grace greeted them at the door. “I was just going to call you – Bobbi said she already had. I’m so sorry.” She hugged Iris, then Ernie. She knew Gloria hadn’t been feeling well. “Is Granny ok?”

“Fine, honey. Just fine.” Iris smoothed Grace’s hair away from her face. “Is Jack coming?”

“He’ll be here Thursday.”

“Where’s George?” Ernie came in to the house and looked around.

Aaron and George were making their way down the hall back to the main family room.

Iris brought Aaron into her arms and stroked his hair. “I’m so sorry, Aaron.”

Grace watched the exchange. For his entire life, Iris had been like a second mother to him. He bent in her arms, shaking his head and holding her shoulders. Grace knew at that moment, Lucia’s death became real for him. This was the other mother, not his. This was Jack’s mom, not his own.

Aaron let go of Iris and wiped his eyes. They all moved out of the entry way as more people arrived and departed. The door was permanently cracked, waiting to open to accommodate the people.

As Iris and Ernie walked into the white tiled family room with George, Aaron didn’t move. He exhaled slowly and looked at Grace. In this moment of silence, she could read his mind. His clear, gray eyes demanded that she be calm, collected. He required her to follow his lead. Time slowed. The air conditioning whirred steadily; the ceiling fan overhead spun furiously. The rest of the people in the house seemed so far away. Her thoughts curved around what Aaron needed.

“Let’s go to the library. I need to make some calls.”

Grace followed him down the tiled hallway, stopping just inside the doorframe to the library.

“Shut the door, please. I don’t want my sisters to walk by and hear what I need to say.”

She clicked the door shut.

“Come sit, please.” Aaron took a seat on the rich leather loveseat and patted the other cushion. “I just talked to dad. He gave the orders for a closed casket ceremony. She would have wanted it that way.”

Grace noticed how Aaron skipped around saying the word “mom.” There would be times that he would refer to her as just that, “she” or “her.” The words were easier, rolled off his tongue without too much pain.

“The memorial service is going to be Friday morning at Chapel Santa Inez. We are going to follow that with the burial.” He paused and took a deep breath. “I need to make some phone calls for arrangements. Can you stay here with me?”

“Of course – as long as it takes.”

She sat with him as he dialed the funeral home to make the final arrangements for Friday. After confirming, he called the Daily Chronicle to give obituary information. He methodically listed the names of family members, the time and date of the memorial service, and the fact that his mother would be mourned by the community.

Aaron hung up the handset and returned the phone to its receiver on the desk. Grace toyed with the clear crystal globe paperweight that she picked up from the side table, wishing she could do more than just sit here. She and Jack would send flowers, of course, but she knew that wouldn’t help. The only thing that would help to ease the pain of death is time; and even hours, months and years would never cover the scar.

She knew there would be a time when Aaron smiled again - when talking about his mother brought him joy and not pain. She knew that eventually he’d accept that she was always alive in the memories of her. He’d hear her favorite song on the radio and know she was speaking to him. Aaron would heal, as Grace had, as all humans do. It was the interim that she wanted to fix - the silence that gaped in melancholic air, the next few days of mourning. And there was nothing she could do.

“You ok?” She placed the globe in the center of the table and sat up straight.

“I’m tired,” he said. His eyes were focused outside the large, square window but Grace knew he didn’t see the Acacia Willows and Bougainvillea climbing around the wrought iron fences in the back garden. Lucia’s garden was beautiful – succulent breeds of cactus, full trees and pink vines mixed with red and orange spray roses and large, white Texas varieties. She cultivated desert plants alongside of marigolds and fiery shades of lantana. Her flowers were so alive, even in the August heat, that it didn’t seem real that she was no longer here.

After a few more minutes, Grace cleared her throat to get his attention. He looked up, almost startled to see her there.

“Let’s go see how the rest of the house is faring.” Aaron nodded his head toward the door and Grace stood.

The family room was relatively quiet. Neighbors had left, more had come. All the couches were crowded with slumped, sad bodies. Ernie was sitting near George, hands clasped like he was praying for an alternate reality. Grace was surprised to see that it was after 4:00 in the afternoon. She wondered how long she and Aaron were in the library, if time was finally cooperating to help speed the process along.

She found Iris sitting with Sarah and Ty. Grace sat down with them and offered words of condolences before slipping into silence. She pretended to listen for a little while, then began to think of other things. Her thoughts distorted – she contemplated death and funerals and the cycles of the human race. She thought of her own family in New Mexico and when she’d visit later this year. She remained close with Gina and her cousins and wanted to see them immediately. Death prioritizes life. She needed to go home soon.

She excused herself from the group and went to help in the kitchen. Ellen reigned supreme, directing Bobbi to open olive jars and Kris to extract dishes from the oven. Tula was still there and finished washing the dishes from lunch. Grace helped Ellen place clean dishes and cutlery on the table next to big bowls of fruit, a tray of cheese and crackers, and three hot Pyrex casserole dishes.

Quietly, Ellen circled through the various groups of people who were sitting and talking to let them know that food was available in the dining area. Cousins, sisters, brothers, and close friends shuffled through the doorway, hugging Ellen, thanking the women for taking care of everyone. Grace made plates for George and Aaron, knowing that both of them hadn’t eaten all day.

When she found them, Aaron gave her a grateful smile. “Thanks.” He picked up a carrot and popped the entire piece into his mouth. “It seems wrong – eating. I’m not even hungry. But I feel mean. This’ll help.” He motioned for his dad to eat though George took a bite of fruit and then put the plate down next to him.

“Where’s yours?” Aaron steered Grace back to the dining area, leaving his dad to talk with Ernie.

“I’ll take care of me, don’t worry.” She didn’t want anything, but ate anyway. Her arms felt heavy, and the headache from her morning hangover still throbbed in her neck and temples.

“Ellen is staying here tonight. So are Aunt Bobbi and Uncle Anthony and their kids. Dad has a full house.” Aaron looked at the grandfather clock in the dining room. “I need to leave here, get my car, go home.”

Grace paused, fork halfway to her mouth. “You need to stay here or with Sarah and Ty or in my guest room. You are not staying at home.”

He didn’t fight her – knew he would self-destruct at home if he was alone. They decided to pick up his clothes and drive to Grace and Jack’s house. He’d stay with them until the funeral.

By ten minutes after eight, most of the family and friends said goodbye with promises to stop by tomorrow. Ellen mandated that no one come by before noon to try and allow time for George to rest. Grace, Tula and Bobbi finished cleaning the kitchen and prepared the dishes for the next day. The cycle would continue for at least a week. It was almost an unwritten rule in Esker; the family of the departed would be cocooned with friends and family for at least a week.

Aaron found Grace in the kitchen. “Ready?”

She nodded her head and hung the dishtowel on the oven door. She hugged Tula and thanked her and gave Bobbi her phone number in case anyone needed anything.

They said their goodbyes to the George, the hugs dry-eyed, weary. Sarah and Tyler had already left and the few remaining people were getting ready to go home. All were past the point of tears at that moment. They were numb.

Grace and Aaron stepped out into the warm night air. The digital green thermometer in Grace’s car showed the temperature to be around 95 degrees. As they left the neighborhood, the temperature dropped slowly to rest at 90 degrees.

They drove to Aaron’s house first to collect his clothes and the things he would need for the coming days. Grace waited in the car, reclined in her seat, watching the full moon crest over the eastern horizon. The wisps of clouds made the orange moon appear almost red. In every August, there was one night where the moon reflected red. Grace thought it was appropriate that it was that night.

A slight breeze blew through the desert. She heard the wind speaking through the thirsty leaves on the trees, past the rustling branches of the tall sage bushes. The coyotes and javelina were more active than what was considered usual at this time of the year. They would slow as the fiery August temperatures rose. The leaf-nosed and small brown bats swooped through the valley on their nightly search for sustenance. Even though all the night creatures were awake and roaming, the desert seemed almost morose, like it was just surviving, not thriving. Then again, Grace thought she could be seeing Mother Nature as an extension of herself. The desert had its rhythms, its own cycles and phases.

She heard Aaron’s front door click shut. He threw the bag onto the back seat of her car and climbed into the passenger seat. He put on his seatbelt as Grace backed out of the driveway. She only lived ten minutes away, but the drive felt much longer. Both were exhausted but highly alert.

“When I was younger, Ellen and I used to tell Sarah that we found her in the desert and brought her home. We even pinpointed the spot, right there…” Aaron pointed directly ahead at the deep vee between the north and south points of the Santa Inez mountain range. “We told her that she was being raised by coyotes and that we had to wrestle her away from the den mother. She’d start crying and would always run to mom to ask her if it was true. She’d get so mad at me an Ellen…” Aaron shook his head. “We were mean to Sarah. And Mom yelled…” He trailed off. He fought the memories because he had to get through the next few days. “What was your mom like, Grace?”

Grace wanted to just let go – to pour her memories from her mind and mix them with Aaron’s thoughts about his mother. She knew he wanted to stop thinking about Lucia, and feel connected to someone who had experienced the same thing.

“She was a lot like your mom, like Iris.” Grace started slowly, not wanting to reveal too much information or compare her mother to Lucia too much. “She was a beautiful woman who read to me nightly and made me feel like I was everything in the world all at the same time. We used to talk about what I wanted to do when I got older. I wanted to teach, to be a mom, to be a zoo keeper,” Grace laughed. “She supported all of them equally. Always took me completely seriously. My parents were both like that – very involved with me, totally focused on making me happy.”

They pulled into the driveway and Grace shut off the engine. The moon was high in the sky now, illuminating the night sky to silver hues against the black backdrop. Aaron grabbed his bags and Grace opened the door. They were exhausted, but she knew she couldn’t sleep yet. He dropped his bags in the guest room and came out to the family area.

“Want to watch a movie?” Grace opened the left side door on the pine entertainment center and motioned to rows of movies she and Jack had collected throughout the years.

“Not really. I think I’m going to go to bed. Thanks again, Gracie. For everything.”

“Yeah.” She smiled. “If you need anything, let me know. Goodnight.”

“Night.” Aaron disappeared down the hall. Grace poured herself a glass of water and took a valium to calm her nerves. Sometimes she just felt the urge to take some of her nervous energy away. Half the time, she was relaxed enough to actually sleep.

She continued to stand there, thinking of what she wanted to do. She knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep yet. She picked up her glass of water and headed for the back patio. She’d drop her feet into the pool and sit there for a little while – that may help relax her enough so that she could sleep.

The entire backyard smelled like the thick citrusy leaves from the lemon tree. It was too late for lemons, to early for blossoms. Small, round lemon buds had fallen to the ground. They looked like dried brown beans.

She dipped her feet into the pool, positioning herself near the deep end built-in loveseat. The black water reflected ripples of white moonlight. She took a deep breath, trying to clear her thoughts about Aaron and Jack and the untimely death of Lucia. The next few days would be the hardest and she would help him make it through. Jack would return. They could talk if they needed to after the funeral. Then again, he may just leave to go back to California.

She breathed a sigh of hope. Postponing the inevitable until she figured out what to do would be the best thing.

The sliding glass door swooshed open and closed with a soft click.

“I couldn’t even fathom going to sleep – I don’t know what I was thinking.” Aaron laughed softly. “Is it ok to sit out here with you?”

“Pull up some concrete – the pool is warm.” The breeze blew her words to his ears.

He settled down beside her and put his feet into the water with a soft sploosh. He smelled like clean soap and his hair was wet. He must have showered before finding her contemplating her life on the deep end of the pool.

“I’m glad you came out here. It is a nice night.”

“Sure is – not too warm yet.”

“Nope.” Grace pushed her legs back and forth through the water.

“What’s wrong?” He motioned toward her moving legs.

“Nothing in particular. I am just feeling angsty and needed to calm myself.”

“Angsty?” He poked her in the side.

“Yeah. Don’t make fun. You know – angsty. Like anxious and angst building up inside until it feels like it is going to burst forth and I want to scream?” She took a breath to recover from the long sentence. “Angsty.”

“I get it. Just trying to make conversation that wasn’t depressing.” Aaron trailed his fingers through the clear water.

“Oh.” She was quiet now, the very thing that he didn’t want apparently.

“You know, I was thinking about death earlier today.” He looked up to the sky. “It comes suddenly, doesn’t it? Takes things that don’t belong to it.” Grace nodded her head in agreement. “I want to do other things but now I’m wondering if it is going to be my time soon too.” Aaron flicked at the water.

“I used to think of that a lot – especially after my parents died. I figured I was next, that death was just waiting for me to round the next corner. I think it’s normal to question your own mortality when faced with it.”

Grace stood on the seat in the pool and looked directly at Aaron. He pushed himself up and stood next to her.

“We’re alive though.” Aaron brushed his hand along her throat.

She counted the seconds as he leaned closer. They both knew that the kiss was inevitable, that they had moved beyond where they could gracefully go back. Bright moonlight illuminated intentions. The back of her neck shivered.

The first kiss had ended before Grace remembered how it began. She needed it to continue. They both gasped for air when he finally leaned back to look at her face.

Even though they stood in the water, Grace felt like she was boiling.

“Gracie, I know this isn’t - ”

“Shh, Aaron. No point in talking about what we already know.”

She backed away from him, stepped out of the pool and turned to face him. “Coming?”

She walked through the main hallway, straight to the guest room. The master bedroom was closer, but she knew, no matter what unspeakable act she was about to commit, that she wouldn’t allow herself to go in there. That was Jack’s space too. She didn’t want him in the space where she and Aaron met.

The bed was soft, smelled like Aaron from the night before. She put her head back, propped herself on her elbows to wait for him. Her heart throbbed, her throat closed and she didn’t care that she was breaking vows, throwing away her promises. At her core, she didn’t care what was wrong – what she should do versus what she would do. And she always knew that she couldn’t be trusted to pick the most moral thing.

Many times she wondered if she was warped because her parents had died when she was such a young age. Even though Gina had raised her with strict values, she wondered if she had lost the ability to stop herself from throwing herself over the edge of reason.

She stopped reasoning when Jack left for California. For the past 24 hours, in the back of her mind, she knew that she would move with Aaron inside her and it would be the most natural thing in the world. And it was.

When she opened her eyes to see his expressions, to memorize his movements, she saw his gray eyes staring straight back at her. He kept her locked there, in his moment of truth, until she felt like her world was going to blow into a million stars. She let it all go. She let go of the voices in her head. He let go of his grief in a loud gasp. Their movements slowed, both trying to return their deep breaths to a normal cadence.

Neither said a word for several minutes.

“You ok?” He rubbed her shoulder.

“Mm-hmm. You?”

“Yes, Gracie.”

And she slept more soundly than she ever had in her life.

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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

National Novel Writing Month...

50,000 words, 30 days.

Novel to appear here.

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