Good times, EJ thinks. Good times. He sips his beer. The night is bright thanks to the fire, the spotlight on the back of his house, and the moon, small and full and straight above.
He wonders whether Mr. Roy still has that toboggan. He imagines Charlene straddling him, her legs and arms wrapped around him tight, as they fly over the ice.
Then again, maybe she harbors no romantic inclinations toward him whatsoever. Maybe she wants friendship, nothing more. She's never mentioned a boyfriend, but that doesn't mean she doesn't have one. Or a girlfriend, EJ thinks. You never know. He chuckles and wills an arousing image out of his mind.
Across the pond the light in Mr. Roy's basement workshop flicks off.
EJ stands, stretches, and throws another log on the fire. Somewhere near, an owl calls: hoo-hoo, huh-hoooo. Hoo-hoo, huh-hoooo. It's the sound a barred owl makes, EJ knows, because Nick taught him that. Nick could identify every single type of bird in the encyclopedia, and imitate their calls, too. He was a frickin' genius that way. What was the barred owl's song? “Who cooks for you, who cooks for all?” Something like that.
EJ cups his hands, throws his head back, and hoots into the night: “Hoo-hoo, huh-hoooo. Who cooks for all.”
He listens for a response, but the owl is silent.
“For Nick,” EJ says. He draws out a belch and pours the remainder of his beer into the snow between his feet.
November 3, 2006
So how big is this heart monitor you have to wear? Sounds stylish. And how long before they get the results back? Doesn't seem like Dr. Fung is too alarmed. That's a good sign, right? I told you you'd be okay. Keep me posted.
And don't let Dr. Fung fondle your gorgeous breasts too much.
So Day 1 is officially over.
Today, Dennis took notes and I took photos as everybody elseâPastor Sheila, Father Chet, Chief, Russ, France, and EJâgutted this old woman, Verna's, house. You should have seen the g.d. mold in her house. Or should I say, what
to be her house. We gave her one small box of all we could salvage (in addition to a bathroom sink which miraculously was in pretty good shape). In the box were a few pots and pans and her son's bronzed baby shoes. She cried when she found the shoes. She said her son was her only baby and he died in 'Nam. She said after the storm blew out, she waited on her roof for help. Just about everybody around her left, but she stayed because she didn't think the storm would be a big deal. And then the next morning, across the street there was a dead, bloated body hooked onto the telephone pole, caught somehow, floating there. Turns out it was her neighbor of thirty-seven years. Can you even imagine that?
There I was taking pictures of this woman as she told Dennis these awful memories: how she was waiting on her roof all alone, sitting on a cooler full of bathtub water, squinting at this corpse, trying to identify itâI felt so angry. How could that happen here, in our country? But Verna, she seemed much more sad than angry. She stood there on the sidewalk, in front of what used to be her home, but is now a pile of rot, and she wept and talked about her son and her neighbor. She was sad, but she was accepting, in a wise sort of way. But I was just angry. Burning-up angry.
I don't know. It's hard to explain. Maybe Verna already went through her anger. Used it all up.
Anyway, you would not believe the trash here, Zell. It's piled along the street where people are gutting homes. It's at least ten feet high and a half mile long. Mattresses, dressers, toilets, refrigerators, shingles, siding. Nothing good for trash picking, that's for sure. Everything is rotten or covered in mold.
I've attached some shots for you. Look very closely at that last one of Russ, with the little boy sitting in his lap and hugging him. That was taken at the church. They had an assembly earlier tonight, to sort of thank the missionaries in advance, Catholics and Baptists together and even a couple Muslim dudes from the Islam place down the street. Yes, Russ's eyes are red. And it's not from all the dust and dirt and mold, if you catch my drift.
Father Chet said something to me today, as I was changing lenses during my conversation with Verna. He came up to me in his Tyvek suit and whispered in my ear, in his awesome African accent: “We are all connected.”
But I'm not supposed to get involved, right? I'm down here with Dennis; he's the reporter, I'm the photographer. We're not supposed to be
with the mission.
We're supposed to record what our friends are doing and then publish a story on it in
when we get back. But I can't help it. I feel like I
a part of it, whether I like that or not. That's not very photojournalistic, is it? It's not very unbiased.
I wish you were here in this sleeping bag with me.
Have titillating dreams of me.
ORNING AGAIN. G.d. morning. I dress as Gladys sings about hating every morning that she opens her eyes and doesn't see her man.
Ahab sniffs around in the backyard, as Mount Wippamunk glistens. It's a freakishly warm Sunday, a weirdly melting world. Icicles drip, and somewhere a lone bird chirps.
Ingrid's in her backyard on the other side of the fence. She wears the huge red ski hat and a pink turtleneck. Mittens dangle from strings inside her sleeves. Her auburn hair hangs unbraided like frizzy curtains. “Come snowshoeing with us,” she says.
I throw up my hands. “Wish I could. But I don't have any snowshoes.” It's a lie. Thing is, snowshoeing with anyone besides Nick would be a betrayal, an admittance of some sort, like getting the car fixed or shoveling the driveway or cooking an occasional meal; things Nick used to do. Winter sports were something Nick and I did together.
“We have an extra pair of snowshoes that you can borrow,” Ingrid says. “They belong to my step-grandmother.”
Ahab trots to the fence. His tail wags once, twice. Ingrid's golden hand makes quick little circles on top of his head, so his ears flatten out to the sides.
“Please?” she says. “My dad really, really wants you to come.”
“Wish I could, but I have a lot of work to get done.”
? We're leaving now. Hurry up.” She gives Ahab one last drawn-out scratch before she bounds inside.
I think of some pamphlets Pastor Sheila handed me not too long ago, when she paid a house call. Pamphlets about grieving that stress the importance of exercise and a change in scenery, being social and making new friends.
“Okay,” I say, even though Ingrid's already gone inside. Ahab cocks his head and whines.
I dig out my ski pants from the half-collapsed cardboard chest of drawers in the coat closet. I lace my hiking boots. I feel around for my fleece hat but decide against it because it's so freakishly warm out.
Nick's green aluminum snowshoes lean against the closet wall. They're dented and scratched. His ridiculous hat is stretched over the tips, a mid-1980s number with strings hanging down, a pompom on top.
I grip the soft hat and sniff its fibrous insides, which remind me of how I might draw stringy strands of muscle tissue.
“I'm going snowshoeing, Nick,” I say. “I'm sorry.”
GARRETT'S BACK IS TO ME. He tosses a big pair of snowshoes and a little pair of snowshoes into the bed of his pickup. He doesn't wear a coat, either, but red Under Armour, which accentuates his muscles.
Ingrid runs from the house with another medium-size pair of snowshoes. “Wait!” She hurls the extra pair over her head, and it clatters onto the others.
“What are you doing?” says Garrett. He closes the truck gate. “Trudy isn't coming.”
“Zell's coming,” she says.
He swings around. I'm standing on the sidewalk, water bottle in hand.
“Oh!” he says. “Hi.”
He looks surprised, and it's clear to me now that Ingrid totally made up the part about Garrett wanting me to come with them.
I glance back at my porch, then stare at my water bottle. “Ingrid saidâ”
“Ingrid says a lot of things.” He laughs. “Get in.”
I PULL MY DOOR SHUT. “Nice ride,” I say, admiring the tidy interior.
As Garrett heads north on potholed Route 331, my insides churn with a crazy mixture of anxiety and guiltâas if I'm cheating on Nick or something. I stare intently out the window. We pass the stone foundation to an old farmhouse just a foot or two from the road. We pass Wippamunk Antiques, where the tips of a white picket fence poke from the snow like shark teeth. We pass Wippamunk Farms. My ears pop as we gain altitude.
“Beautiful day,” Garrett says.
“Hmmm,” I say.
At the stucco Prince of Peace Catholic Church, Father ChetâWippamunk's first-ever Cameroonian residentâshovels slush from the sidewalk leading to the sacristy. He's been leading Prince of Peace for a few years now, and the general consensus among Wippamunkers is that he's sincere and kind, if a little kooky sometimes.
At a blinking red light looms the Tudor-style Wippamunk Free Public Library. And just past it, we catch a brown-gray-green view of central Massachusetts, the skyscrapers of Boston in the far distance.
Garrett cracks his window. He squints in the sunlight that glints off the snowbanks and the wet road. From an overhead compartment he extracts sunglasses and puts them on. “How's your kitchen?” he asks. “Any damage?”
“No,” I say. “No damage at all, actually. Guess I was lucky.”
“Anything we can do to help out?”
“Not really. But thanks.”
“Anything at all, just say the word.”
“I was the one who called the fire department, you know,” he says.
I realize I never even thought about who summoned the firefighters.
“I smelled smoke,” he continues. “Then your alarm started going off, and I didn't know if you were in there, if you were dead or alive, or what.”
Me neither, I think, as Ingrid adds, “It was really scary.”
“Well, thank you. For calling the fire department,” I say.
“Of course,” he says. He drums his thumbs on the steering wheel. I can tell he's trying to think of something else to talk about. “So, life's hectic for me and Ingrid,” he says after a while. “Between work and law school and Ingrid's school, the daily grind is pretty rough.”
“Mine, too,” I say. Which is a lie, because I work at home and have no kids, and don't really have a daily grind. I try to smile, but when I catch Garrett's eye, that anxious guilt roils inside my gut again. I look quickly out the window.
We drive a ways. Past an old cemetery, where, a few years back, Nick photographed elementary school students taking rubbings of the headstones. Past the abandoned orphanage where he and Dennis once spent the night for a feature on the legendary ghosts of Wippamunk. Past stone walls, scenic overlooks, gully streams, all of which make me ache, all of which cry out, Nick, Nick, Nick, even now.
“That's my step-grandmother's house!” Ingrid announces. She points to a big house with a barnlike side addition. Little plywood lean-tos protect the hedges in the yard. Stained-glass fairies decorate the windows. The fairies twirl slightly, catching the light. Near the front door a wooden sign reads, DON'T PISS OFF THE FAIRIES!!
“Dad, wave hi,” says Ingrid. She waves like crazy to the brick red house.
“Dad,” she says. “Why isn't Trudy my nanny?”
“Because I don't want you around all that heavy machinery. Besides, Trudy's a busy lady.”
I raise an eyebrow. “Heavy machinery?”
“Don't ask. My stepmother is a . . . creative type. Crap, I missed the trailhead.” He swings the truck around.
“Like me,” I say. I realize too late how lame that sounds. “Where did you live before?” I ask. “In Wippamunk, right?”
“Just on the other side of town. My landlord raised the rent. That's why we moved.”
“Do you have a mother?” Ingrid asks.
“She lives in Vermont with my sister,” I say.
“Here we are,” Garrett says grandly, sort of like a circus announcer. He parks the truck at the mouth of a dirt road two-thirds of a mile from Trudy's house.
This road, I know, leads to a man-made lake. On its shores sits an old stone chimney. Nick and I pitched our tent there a million times and slept inside, cocooned in our sleeping bags, side by side.
WE STRAP ON OUR SNOWSHOES and trudge along the unplowed maintenance road, snaking up the undeveloped south side of Mount Wippamunk. Behind me Ingrid quietly sings the doo-wop
Pinch of Love
theme song. In front of me Garrett is silent except for steady, intent nose breathing.
In my head I frame the photographs Nick would take: sunlight shimmering; birches glistening; a bloodred cardinal cheep-cheep-cheeping; the spots where snow melted and refroze, distorting the impressions of everything that touched itâpaws and pinecones and dripping icicles.