KAT HITCHED WITH A PIZZERIA MANAGER heading home from Reno.
“Devon,” he said.
Her name was Katrina, but she no longer wanted the association of a hurricane. “I’m Kat,” she said.
Devon was too handsome to be a creep. His curly black hair hung weightless, like an astronaut’s in zero G. Green eyes, heavy lips. He shifted with his left hand, his right encased in an unsigned cast. He talked about his ideas as he drove: a honeycomb cast that allows your body to be scratched; egg cartons with clear tops so you’ll never forget to buy more; The Rhythm Wheel.
“You plug it into the cigarette lighter and it wraps around the steering wheel,” he said. “Touch sensitive.” He tapped the steering wheel with his good hand and made a drum sound to demonstrate. “And this part here, this could be the bass drum. This, the hi-hat. Tchhhhh.”
He asked about her. Her lies were like cactus blossoms, each one opening slowly, meant for only this night, fragile in the universe of dark that poured down over them. She gave up only two truths: first, that she was looking for work and a place to stay.
“Anything?” he asked.
“Regular work,” she said, thinking, here it comes. The creep. “A place of my own,” she added.
“Done,” he said. “You can work for me.”
“I have a felony,” she said, the second truth. And though that weight was solely hers, she used it to pull down his confidence. Things were never that easy.
“You kill someone with pizza sauce?”
“Then it’s no problem.”
And two hours later she was asleep in a clapboard house belonging to one of Devon’s employees who, along with her daughter, had moved out to work the ski season up in Mammoth. The next morning she filled out paperwork and by that afternoon she had a job. Everyone at the pizzeria liked working with her, but they would not become her friends. They were local kids and she was an outsider, not even a friend of their mothers. Most of them were her daughters’ ages, though it was hard to picture them with acned faces, too much eyeliner.
Devon wanted to take her to a movie. He was too young for her, but she said yes because she hadn’t seen a film in eight years. They drove up the road to the Twin Theater in Bishop, the wind buffeting the truck. They talked through the veneer of gossip she’d absorbed from a week of work. They passed an overturned semi. In dying flare-light, the trailer looked dead, its underside road-black. But Devon didn’t seem to notice; one hand was all he needed to keep the truck steady as the wind pelted them with handfuls of sand. The movie was bad but wonderful to her all the same. She’d forgotten that movie screens were so large and could obliterate her sense of self so wonderfully. On the drive back, she admitted she’d missed nearly a decade of films. He began listing everything she needed to see. She recognized some of the actors, but the titles sounded dumb. He stopped in front of her place and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. His cast brushed her breasts unintentionally.
He returned a half-hour later with his truck bed filled with houseplants. “Now I don’t have to water Megan’s plants anymore.” But the plants were a botanical pretense for the VHS cassettes he carried inside within a milk crate. The dust covers were all faded to shades of blue. They watched movies until they fell asleep.
The following evening, the plants became her first priority. Despite being exhausted and smelling of root beer and grease, she watered, trimmed and bathed them in lamp light, starting with the spider plant in the living room and ending with the cactus in the bathroom. Only then did she attend to herself, which meant removing her shoes and collapsing into bed. She had no interest in watching the films Devon had left. She could never catch up.
After one shift, she took a walk to Lone Pine Drugs, still unaccustomed to the freedom, even a month out. She bought aspirin and a map to figure out where in California she was. San Francisco and the Pacific were a day’s drive away. She bought a postcard. Hey! she wrote. Then she crossed out Hey! and obscured the word, turning it into a black rectangle to which she added wheels and bumpers so it looked like a car, a deliberate beginning. She started again. I’m in Lone Pine, California, working. I can see Mt. Whitney (the highest mountain in the continental U.S.) from my window. It’s getting colder. I bought a hot water bottle and use it every night. I hope both of you are well. Hugs, Mom. She flipped the postcard over, to the picture of people skiing down Mammoth Mountain. She drew an arrow to one of the skiers and wrote Me, then cried.
Returning home, she found an Airstream trailer parked in front of the house. A man was unhitching it. He climbed into his truck, honked and waved as he drove off, like he knew her. Wind rocked the trailer. Kat pictured a rhino inside, heaving from side to side. She didn’t notice the black town car parked behind it until she heard the car’s window groan down, revealing an old woman who said, “I'm your grandmother.”
“My grandmother’s in Canada.”
The old woman’s car door opened and chimed, chimed, chimed. A cane touched the ground, followed by two legs that appeared sawn off at mid-shin and stuffed rudely into a pair of black leather shoes. The woman’s arms looked like they were covered in lichen. She was no taller than the top of the car door, which the wind helped her slam with surprising force. The cold tugged at her housecoat and brought Kat a faint fecal scent nearly masked by rose water.
“I am your grandmother,” the old woman insisted. “Your other one.”
“She’s dead,” Kat said.
“I expect you’d think so. Now let me inside, Tina, or I'll freeze.” She moved past Kat and began mounting the front porch steps.
“I’m not Tina.”
The old woman stared at her. She took hold of Kat’s hand and ran her waxy fingers across Kat’s palm. She immediately did the same to the other hand. “Your scar’s healed,” she said. “You were a toddler.”
“I’m just renting the house. Your granddaughter’s in Mammoth. With her mom.”
She dropped Kat’s hands. “You look just like her picture.”
Kat had seen Megan’s daughter in framed photos in the house. Tina was maybe eighteen, and age was the first disqualification for any likeness.
“When was the last time you saw your granddaughter?”
“The winter she burned herself on the fireplace.”
Kat unlocked the door, took the postcard from her jacket pocket and placed it on top of the refrigerator with all the others, then sat across from the woman at the kitchen table. Her face was difficult to take in; Kat’s eyes were snared in the woman’s cotton-candy hair, then lost in the deep creases that made a puzzle of her face. The wind moaned and whistled. Kat got up and began washing dishes.
The woman said her name was Clementine, and she told Kat how, years before, she had left her then-husband and her young daughter Megan through the same doorway they’d just entered. “I traded that life for a man who treated me right,” she said. “An oilman with steel hair. Danced like Gene Kelly, despite his age. He could bring up oil by stomping his feet.”
“How old was Megan?”
“Five. Four, maybe. I didn’t see Meg again until she was in her twenties. She’s over fifty now. Hoards forgiveness like its currency.”
Kat felt for the woman. “I have kids,” she said.
Clementine swept at crumbs with her cupped palm. There was nothing else on the table.
“Two kids,” Kat said.
Clementine shook her head. “She told Tina I’d died before Tina was born. Meg’s ex told me that.” She swept the crumbs to the floor. “Told her I drowned in a boating accident on the Allegheny. Honey, I still don’t know where the Allegheny is. No, I didn’t drown. But my oilman did, in our pool,” the woman said. “He left me ten million dollars. I lived it up. Reno penthouse, gambling, parties, extravagances. I rented a string quartet for a month to play me to sleep. I wasn’t supposed to outlive the spending. It’s all gone.”
Kat had never met a millionaire. It was a letdown. Clementine held out her hands to Kat, who helped her upright. “I have a daughter who won’t speak to me,” Clementine said. “A granddaughter who thinks me drowned.” She clapped her hands together. “But the money’s gone. Things are simpler. She never forgave me rich. Maybe she’ll forgive me poor.”
Kat made up the bed in Tina’s room, on which Clementine quickly looked out of place, her cane hanging on the arm of a life-size movie theater cutout of Brad Pitt.
That night, Kat lay in bed and watched horses milling in their corrals, black against the foothills. The Sierras rose to incredible heights behind them, the entire escarpment white except for the steepest granite where wisps of snow were swept off by wind. This was meditation to her, this view so immense it slapped shut her thoughts. She didn’t want to give it up. But then her eyes closed and her thoughts rushed up to dance. That her own daughters would age once seemed an impossibility. And when she was in prison they stayed young. But when she dreamt of them they were always running from her, their faces turned away perhaps because she couldn’t fix their features anymore. Because if she could reach out and turn them around to her again they would be young women, and unrecognizable. She couldn’t help but wonder how terrible a mother Clementine had been, how much damage she must have caused for Megan to raise a daughter on a lie. Especially when there had been millions of dollars for the sharing. Reconciliation was for the movies, Kat knew. Separation was much more natural, at any cost. She imagined Megan holding Clementine’s ankles against a cold muddy river bottom and leaving her there, mired for forty years, polluted, shriveled. Megan had done the right thing omitting Clementine. Grant the mind muscles and it’s eight years in prison. She counted mountain peaks through the window, fifteen, and watched the pink mountains devour the moon.
Clementine looked even older in daylight. Her pupils jittered in her eyes like gnats stumbling through the air. Kat wondered if this was an indication her time was wrapping up, or just a glitch one could live with indefinitely.
“I’m going to see my granddaughter today.”
“Come with me.”
“I have to work,” Kat lied.
Clementine held Kat’s arm. “Take me to Mammoth. Please.”
The town car had only eight hundred miles on it. Clementine sat in the passenger seat and stared forward. “It’s stark here,” she said, once they’d broken through the cloud cover and could see the eastern Sierras for the first time that morning. The Owens Valley stretched out behind them, a great lake of fog.
“I think it’s pretty.”
“No. It’s stark.”
They drove up through the beige, rock-strewn landscape. At Crowley Lake they could see white mountains and more white mountains ahead. Everything was wide-open and new, like an entirely unknown state and she wanted to drive clear to the ocean, run from the car and across the sand and dive into the Pacific like a character in a movie, free and cold and clean.
Instead, the town car slipped on a curve, recovered, then hit an unforgiving patch of black ice that spun the car and obliterated the landscape, leaving the car in a vast white room. The tires finally gripped asphalt and the car shuddered to a stop.
Kat looked over to the passenger seat. Clementine’s head rested against the side window, her eyes closed, blood creeping down the glass. The clasp of her seat belt gleamed unused where it hung against the car’s frame. “Clementine?” Kat moved Clementine from the window and pulled away the strands of hair that stuck to the bloodied glass. The old woman’s head hung down like it was about to snap off and fall into her lap. Kat tried to find a pulse, but her own hands shook too much to measure. She remembered shaking like this before, but out of anger, not fear. Kat drove on toward Mammoth, willing hospital road signs to rise where only plow markers stood to attention in the clumps of snow. Clementine leaned forward and hit the dashboard, her head staying there. Kat felt herself pee a little bit. She reclined Clementine’s seat as far back as it would go so she wouldn’t see the woman who was dead and unforgiven.
At the Mammoth hospital, Kat rushed back to the car with two medics in tow. Clementine was awake, her attention on her bloody fingers.
“Did she hit me?” Clementine asked, as they brought her inside.
“Who?” the nurse asked.
“I’m not her daughter,” Kat said.
“Did someone strike you?” the nurse asked.
“You hit your head in the car,” Kat said.
Clementine nodded, seeming both relieved and disappointed. “Would you call her?” she asked Kat. “Would you call my daughter for me?”
“Would you tell her I’m here?”
“I’ll find her.”
She left Clementine and visited the Vons where Devon had said Megan worked. She found her scanning booze for skiers. Kat took a bar of chocolate and stood in line.
“Hi,” she said. “I’m Kat. I rent your house.”
“Oh, hey.” Megan smiled. “Doing some skiing?”
“Your mother came to the house yesterday.”
The smile disappeared. “Don’t let her inside.”
“It’s not my business, but she’s hoping to see her granddaughter.”
“She’s not here,” she said, handing the previous customer a long receipt.
Kat could see Tina at the other far end of the store, bagging groceries at the last register.
“Your mom’s at the hospital with a concussion. I thought you should know.”
“Don’t worry. She’s immortal,” Megan said.
Kat didn’t have an immediate reply. Immortal was one of those words that held a lie in its heart.
“She seems broken,” Kat said, though she knew pity was not something she should expect to impart on others.
“It’s the osteoporosis.”
Kat shook her head. “She’s sorry, I think. For what she did.”
Megan held the chocolate bar over the scanner, hesitating. “I’ll go see her,” she said finally, the scanner sounding a blip of recognition.
Kat nodded. It was the best she could hope for, and all she could want.
Megan held up the bar of chocolate. “Did you really want this?”
“Please,” Kat said.
She left Mammoth on a bus. In the approaching darkness she could see the grid of lights that made up Bishop, and farther down the valley, the smaller cluster of fallen stars that was Lone Pine. Were it not for Clementine’s arrival, Kat would have looked at the town with more fondness—a place outside of herself that she could point to, where she had a home and a job, plants that would perish without her attention. But hers wasn’t even a layaway life. It was another’s life she’d loaned.
Devon picked her up in Bishop, the pizzeria’s phone number the only one she knew. After eight years she’d even forgotten her old home phone number. There were sevens, a four, and an eight. The rest had vanished, like the home itself, like her daughters. Devon was dressed for work. His cast was off, she noticed.
“It’s not your fault,” he said, driving with both hands on the wheel.
“I didn’t see the ice,” she said.
“Megan doesn’t like her mother,” he said. “You practically did her a favor.”
He honked after he dropped her off.
She’d left the lights on and the house glowed like someone lived in it, but it wasn’t her glow. The plants didn’t need water, the soil moist on her fingertips. She began drawing the curtains closed to block out the squares of night, then saw the Airstream gleaming like the moon.
The Airstream was unlocked. Inside, she saw boxes and more boxes. She found the electrical contact and ran three sets of extension cords to the house. She moved a wall of shoes and saw Clementine staring at her from an oil portrait. She was much younger, had a full head of hair and stood beside a man a good twenty years older. Their faces were finished, with rough blue halos of paint around their heads and crude brush strokes at the edges of the canvas. Kat put the painting and the bulkiest items inside the house. The heavier boxes she shoved aside to get deeper into the Airstream, excavating a kitchenette, a seating area, a bed. It wasn’t curiosity propelling her now, but something more desperate. This trailer held the remains of a millionaire’s life while everything in her own life was smoke. She was now inside a brushed aluminum dream, the rustproof promise of what money can buy. She made a phone call to Devon.
She heard his truck rattle up outside and turned to see her exit now blocked by a crowd of furs, silk Chinese robes and a dozen wigs that seemed too large for a human head. Soon she would not be alone. She put on a curly blonde wig, wrapped herself in a pelt and pushed her way into the cold carrying an oversized check made out to Clementine for TWENTY-FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS AND NO CENTS. On the back was glued a photo of Clementine holding the same novelty check, casino staff and slot machines behind her, everyone caught in mid-clap.
“What the hell,” Devon said.
“I’m a millionaire,” Kat said.
“You look it.”
She handed him the check. “Now you are, too. C’mon in and have a look.” She went back to uncovering the remains of Clementine’s possessions, a nested stack of cowboy hats, jewelry boxes so stuffed she couldn’t tell costume pieces from the priceless ones. Devon took what she gave him and made piles in the Airstream’s kitchen. When she reached the back wall of the trailer she was surprised by the degree of her disappointment. She’d been hoping to find something personal. Photo albums maybe, pictures of the house and a younger Clementine. Megan playing at her feet with her favorite doll. Some sure sign of once-real happiness.
Devon held up a glass dome. “This can’t be real,” he said. “‘Authentic Moon Rock, Apollo XVII Mission.’” He spoke the Roman numerals individually. He held it out to her. The rock inside was the size of a piece of driveway gravel.
Kat looked at the giant check, the wigs, the furs. Anything was possible. She took a cowboy hat from a hook and placed it over Devon’s curls. He straightened it and smiled at her. She turned out the lights and crawled into the middle of the bed, without leaving room for him on either side. The air smelled of cardboard and perfume. She waited, closed her eyes. She could feel the heat coming off his forehead, first, then his lips. She could feel a scar on the wrist she’d only seen in a cast. She rubbed her fingers over it until he pulled her hand away.
“Tell me one thing you like about me,” she said.
The sex was over by the time her eyes were accustomed to the dark. For the first time in a long time she felt almost happy as they lay there, silent but for their breathing. She felt clear. If she really tried now, she could remember everything: her daughter’s faces, her old phone number, which knife she’d used to injure her husband; the chef’s, the bread, one of the steaks, the fruit parer. But she also knew how to tame her memories. She studied Devon instead. He smiled at her as he dressed. His chest was like her ex-husband’s. One long stripe of hair, like a zipper running from throat to groin. She wished she could unzip his chest just far enough to see what a young man’s heart looked like. It would be something. She wanted to say, “I lost custody of my kids when I went to prison. He wasn’t a good husband. I wasn’t a good wife. But I think I was a good mother.” Instead, she said, “Can I stay with you? For awhile?”
He grinned at her as he buttoned his shirt. “Absolutely.” He put the cowboy hat back on. “You’ll like it. You’ll like it a lot.”
“It’s a bad idea, though,” she said. “I have so much baggage I need a porter.”
“Leave your stuff,” he said, and it didn’t matter to her that he misunderstood, or if he understood completely.
“Wait,” she said. She crawled to a pile of Clementine’s possessions, unscrewed the glass cover from a case, and pried the moon rock off its stand. It was light, like pumice. She pressed it into his hand. “Here. For you.”
Devon had a double-wide trailer close to the foothills. She asked Devon for stamps and placed all he had on the dozens of unaddressed postcards she’d written from Lone Pine. Then she followed Devon outside to his hot tub. He pointed out a satellite drifting across the midnight sky. He knew how fast they moved, how many miles above the earth they hung. She could see the inside of his trailer through the sliding glass door: the couch, the TV, the piano his mother had won for him on The Price is Right. Luck.
That night in Devon’s bed she imagined he was Clementine’s oilman as she gave herself to him again. She dreamt of the oilman, too. They had traveled across the country in his Airstream, looking for oil. He held her firmly by the wrists as they stood above a promising spot, the two of them jumping above a possible oil pocket, pouncing on the stubborn crust of ground that was keeping them on this side of absolute riches.
“Harder!” he shouted to her, laughing. “Jump harder!”
She woke with a leg cramp and walked it off in the dark. Through the window she could see that what she’d taken to be horses were instead cattle, their ignorant shapes asleep against the ground. She bundled up for a walk, grabbed her postcards and followed the dirt road to the wire fence, a predawn glow behind her. A couple of cows rose and lumbered to her, steam rising from their nostrils like from a tea kettle wanting attention. One snatched a postcard from her hand and devoured it. She waited for the cow to spit it out, to choke, to possibly die. But it pushed forward for more. Soon half the herd was at the fence. She fed them the remaining postcards and watched as her days were consumed, on to milk or meat. Their rough sloppy tongues pushed her empty hands aside. They looked over the fence at her, disappointed there wasn’t more. ■