With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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When I turned off the one-lane road onto the driveway of our solitary farmhouse, I heard the scrape of the truck’s tires on gravel, and then a muffled gunshot. At least, I thought it was a gunshot. Stepping from the truck, I could see entire galaxies of stars through the naked branches of the aspens and the icy arms of the pine trees. Chimney smoke spiraled into the air, its fiery scent so sharp I could taste it. It was too quiet: no bellowing of elk, no call of owls. As I opened the front door, I could smell the beef stew I’d left simmering on the stove, but there was no music, and our dog Neva did not greet me. The living-room chairs were still overturned from the fight my husband, Greg, and I had had an hour earlier. Stunned by his rage, I had run from the house and driven to the Longhorn — the bar where I worked — to give him time to cool off.
I found Greg lying on our kitchen floor, eyes open, rifle nestled along one of his outstretched arms. Blood pooled under his long, curly hair as our new puppy, Buddhaboy, ran round and round, encircling him in bloody paw prints.
I recall running back to the truck but then nothing else until I threw open the door of the Longhorn Saloon and grabbed the first person I saw. “Greg shot himself!” I shouted. “He must be dead!”
I shouldn’t be standing, I thought. I needed to sit down or pass out or something. I wanted a doctor to come from Durango and give me a shot to make me sleep. Instead someone phoned Sharon, my friend and fellow bartender. She brought me home with her, and two tired cops later interrogated me across her kitchen table. One asked which hand I wrote with. “We have to rule you out,” he said.
I must have told them about the fight: how, for the first time in our six years together, Greg had come after me, yanked my hair, and flung me across the room. Lamps had fallen, but I’d been able to grab the keys and make it to the pickup. I remember him chasing after me, a kitchen chair raised above his head.
Sometime after the cops left, Sharon went to bed, leaving me alone in her darkened living room. I wanted to feel Greg. I wanted him to be OK. I wanted to know where he was. I saw a vision of him dressed in a white T-shirt and blue jeans, running through a sunny field of waist-high grass that swayed in the wind. He ran with ease, the hitch in his step gone, moving away from me, not looking back.
As the night crawled on, I combed my hands through my hair and saw loose strands hanging from every finger. It was only then that I wondered: What if I’d come home a few minutes earlier?
Several days earlier, Greg and I had gone for a walk around our favorite lake.
“This place I found is a better world,” Greg insisted as we trudged over a crust of snow toward a wide boulder whose sunny expanse would be a warm place to sit. We carried a picnic of ham-and-cheese sandwiches and a thermos of coffee with cream and sugar. Neva carried the largest rock she could fit in her mouth.
“It’s so different from this world,” he said. “So beautiful, I can’t describe it. But you can’t stay there in a physical body.” He said he was still here only because of me, that he would go to this “place” if I ever stopped loving him. “Really, you should come, too,” he said. “We just have to leave our bodies here.”
The sunlit snow hurt my eyes, and the thawing ice groaned across the lake. Oh, God, my husband is cracking up, I thought. But maybe we were both a little crazy. Maybe we’d eaten too much peyote, taken too much acid, been poor for too long, had too many confrontations with cops and National Guardsmen while protesting the war. After a three-month road trip, we had ended up in this one-stoplight town in Colorado. At first we’d lived in a converted chicken coop behind Greg’s uncle’s house. I tended bar four to midnight at the Longhorn, making $1.25 an hour plus tips, only no one could afford to tip. When it snowed, our van wouldn’t start, so I’d walk the mile to work. With no money for winter clothes, I wore jeans, hiking boots, a leather jacket, and a scarf over my hair. Ice crystals formed on every errant curl. The women drove right past me, but often a cowboy would stop, reach across to throw open his pickup’s passenger door, greet me with “You’ll freeze to death dressed like that,” and drive me to the bar.
Within a month or so Greg was able to trade in the van for a beat-up pickup, the floor of the cab nearly rusted through. It took us several more months to save enough to rent the old farmhouse. Since Greg refused to cut his long hair — the only thing cowboys hated more than cougars was hippies — he remained jobless, leaving me the sole provider.
At the lake I didn’t know how to respond to my husband’s rambling. Maybe this was just another of his musings on the absurdity of life, like when he would portray King Lear in our living room or Kafka’s cockroach trying to get out of bed.
Or maybe it went back further. I remember standing in his mother’s kitchen when I was a teenager, listening to her describe how, as a toddler, Greg would hold his breath until he was blue and sometimes pass out.
She was the only one not surprised by the late-night call.
Greg’s father had given him the rifle because he wanted his son to hunt, to “be a man.” I’d never seen Greg with the gun. He kept it tucked away in our closet, behind his worn Gibson guitar. I’d half forgotten he owned it. He wouldn’t even buy a fishing pole, said he couldn’t lure a hapless fish to its death by offering it a tasty morsel.
Who was this man I’d found lying on the kitchen floor while the beef stew simmered on the stove?
As morning sunlight crept into Sharon’s living room, I wondered if someone had seen the stew cooking and turned the stove off. And if they had, had they thought to put it in the refrigerator? I imagined the smell of the rotting meat mingling with the iron odor of Greg’s blood, wafting into every room of the farmhouse, settling into our clothes, bonding with the furniture, the ceiling, the walls.
When Greg’s parents came, they stayed with his aunt and uncle. My parents stayed in the closest motel, twenty miles away. Sharon held me as steady as she could. I remember asking my parents again and again about the blood. Who would clean up the blood?
I couldn’t step back into the farmhouse. My parents went in only to fill a suitcase with my clothes and pack up our records and our photos. I have no idea what happened to my journals, but I did end up with Greg’s bright-red spiral-bound notebook. The last pages of the story he’d been writing had turned into scribbles sliding off the edge of the paper.
I don’t know what happened to the pen-and-ink drawing I’d made for Greg of King Lear, his flowing gray hair entwined with flowers. It had been my present to him for his twenty-first birthday, six months earlier. He loved Shakespeare’s play and would stand in our living room, ruffle his long hair, and become the mad king raging against the world, then dying in wretched despair over the body of the daughter he had banished.
One of my friends had taken Neva, and Greg’s cousin had taken our cat, Ona, and Buddhaboy.
I don’t know who took Greg’s coin collection, or our Navajo rugs, or anything else of value.
Sharon kept offering me food, worried that I wouldn’t eat. A piece of frozen Sara Lee chocolate cake fresh from the oven finally broke the spell. Weeks later, when I was alone at my sister’s place in Berkeley, California, Sara Lee chocolate cake and coffee with sugar and cream would be what sustained me.
But first I had to get through the funeral.
I don’t know how the rumor started, but the consensus in town was that I must have done something terrible to make Greg kill himself. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might be blamed for his death. Everyone’s suspicions solidified into a story that I was having an affair with a cowboy from the bar. I thought I knew who they were talking about: a guy I had made out with in the men’s bathroom after closing a couple of times. But how could they have known? Maybe they’d seen the way he looked at me when he dropped a dime in the jukebox to play “Help Me Make It through the Night.” It was no affair, though. Didn’t an affair mean you’d made love — or, at least, spent time together? But maybe it was bad enough that I’d kissed him, that I’d thought about doing more. Maybe I had killed Greg after all.
Greg’s father wanted him buried there in town. I’d told him Greg had wanted to be cremated, but why would his father listen to me? Our marriage had seemed only to double his disappointment in his son.
I asked that Greg be buried in the royal-purple velvet shirt I’d made for him, with the brilliant sunset embroidered across the shoulders and two rows of sparkling beads sewn around the collar like a necklace fit for a king. It was his favorite shirt. I have no idea what they finally dressed him in.
“I’m proud of you, kiddo,” my dad whispered fiercely as he guided me toward the open grave. Later, when I asked what he’d meant, he said he was impressed by how well I had held myself together — as though feeling dead inside were a virtue.
Greg’s parents and his uncle’s family stood hunched in a soft spring snowfall. I think the casket was lowered into the grave before the service. I remember a cavernous hole with a mountain of dirt next to it, snow dusting its top. A preacher read from the Bible. Greg didn’t believe in God, but no one at the funeral cared except me.
Greg’s father stood next to the grave and declared Greg’s life a “closed book.”
Afterward I climbed into the backseat of my parents’ rental car and rode away while Greg lay buried six feet deep. That I was leaving and he was staying seemed impossible. And how could I leave this little town tucked into the Rockies? The blue spruce and the aspen? The Longhorn Saloon with its cowboys and truck drivers? And always — always — the wildlife roaming the land and haunting the sky? Though I hadn’t made love with another man, this place had thoroughly seduced me. Maybe that was the affair everyone was talking about. Maybe that afternoon when Greg and I had stripped naked in the woods, it hadn’t been his lips but a falling leaf that had brushed my ear, sending shivers down my spine. For the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged somewhere. I didn’t know how I would live without those mountains and rivers, without that wide sky and those high-desert plateaus, without the piñon trees and the hungry flocks of crestless jays.
I don’t remember much about the days and nights I spent at my parents’ house in the San Bernardino Mountains. I mostly sat on the couch, looking at the scrawny pine trees outside the window and thinking, You call that a forest?
I tried phoning the friends Greg and I had hung out with since our sophomore year in high school — the Group. We’d stayed connected, visiting each other at college and when we came home for holidays. Yet somehow the story of my “affair” had preceded me. The few girlfriends I called had nothing to say. Finally one guy phoned to tell me to stop bothering everyone, that no one wanted to see me again because of what I had done to Greg.
I didn’t defend myself because, at the time, I thought they might have been right. For years Greg had told me that it was only my love that kept him alive. This seemed romantic, like the last stanza in a poem he’d written for me about the vagaries of life: “Then there’s this heart / In its rise and fall / Knows how you smile / And thus knows all.” Even I thought it was easier to blame me than to try to answer the question: How had Greg become a murderer? Because that’s how I thought of it: he had killed the man I loved.
My sister, Dana, flew down from Berkeley to be with me for a while. I told her my period was late; I hadn’t bled in five or six weeks. We thought I was probably just in shock but decided I should go to the clinic for a pregnancy test, just in case. While I waited for the results, two friends, Lazz and Pete (who weren’t part of the Group) came to visit me. In college we’d had deep discussions about women’s liberation, the perils of capitalism, the destruction of the environment, and our nation’s unending wars. At my parents’ place we just sat around and silently passed a joint.
The day after Pete and Lazz left, I took Dana to the airport. She was going back to Berkeley, and I would go back to our parents’ couch. A half hour before the plane departed, Dana called the clinic to see if they had the results. As soon as I saw her face, I knew I was pregnant, and I also knew I could not go back to Mom and Dad’s house. Dana had enough cash for another ticket, so she called Dad to tell him where the car was parked, and we boarded the plane for Berkeley together. I’m sure my parents were relieved that she was taking me with her.
Dana had recently moved in with her boyfriend, but, just in case the boyfriend didn’t work out, she was still paying rent on the little place where she’d lived alone. It was an old water tower, about twelve feet square at the base, slanting inward as it went up. The living room and a lopsided kitchen were on the ground floor; a ladder led to the bedroom, on the platform where the old cistern had been. It was like living in a house from Alice in Wonderland. The bedroom had a double mattress on the floor and a full moon painted in the corner of the ceiling. I’d grown up wearing Dana’s hand-me-downs, so getting dressed from her closet was second nature to me. This would be where I stitched myself together enough to go back to Colorado, I thought.
But I was still carrying my dead husband’s baby. Greg and I had been trying to have a child for a year. He would have been thrilled to learn that I was pregnant. If only I had known just a few weeks earlier, this tiny embryo might have saved him. As it was, I felt haunted. My body was like a house his ghost refused to leave.
I knew my mother wouldn’t help me with the pregnancy, and Greg’s mother wasn’t talking to me. It was as if the baby didn’t exist to anyone else. How could I take care of a child? I had no home, no money. I couldn’t even take care of myself. My sister had to remind me to take a shower when she came to visit. She took my clothes to the laundromat so I wouldn’t “smell so bad,” she said.
I didn’t think things could get worse until I received an anonymous letter from Colorado saying I might be “shot dead” if I ever came back. With shaking hands I phoned my dad, but he had no interest in getting involved in my shameful mess. A part of me must have known this was coming. As a twenty-one-year-old hippie from California in a Colorado town where rifles were slung across the rear window of every pickup, I’d been on shaky ground at the best of times.
I had to let it all go. My life in Colorado was gone. My life with Greg was gone. His family — including his twin sister, who had been my best friend for six years — wanted nothing to do with me. Most of my friends didn’t want to see me. Other than Dana, my siblings were mostly distant. (Years later my oldest brother would tell me Mom had insisted that I wanted to be left alone after Greg’s death.) I’d been culled from the herd.
Abortion was finally legal in California, and I had made my decision. The procedure was scheduled for two weeks away. I had fourteen days with our baby. Sometimes I thought I could feel the quickening of life inside me — a reminder that I, too, was alive. Other times I was terrified.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Greg’s last moments on this earth. I envisioned his mouth around the muzzle of his rifle. Did his lips recoil from the cold steel or close firmly around it? Those soft lips that had told me his deepest thoughts and knew every inch of me. There had been so much blood. Even now the memory of his kisses tasted of it. And it was unimaginable that his head, whose weight I had felt in my lap so many times, had a huge hole in the back.
At the follow-up appointment after the abortion, I lay shivering on the steel table in a frayed cotton gown, my bare feet wedged into metal stirrups set too far apart.
The doctor asked how I was feeling, then wheeled a stool between my legs. The nurse adjusted a rectangle of paper over my knees, a flimsy curtain of privacy between us.
While the doctor probed and peered, he asked if I’d had any unusual bleeding or pain and what kind of birth control I would like.
“My husband just killed himself,” I said. “I don’t need any birth control.” He asked if I was sure, and I said again, “I don’t need any birth control.”
The nurse turned away to get something from the cabinet while the doctor continued chatting with me about my visit to the Bay Area. His hand brushed over my clitoris, and for the first time in weeks I felt something, a sensation I’d forgotten I could have.
“Maybe you should fit me for a diaphragm after all,” I said.
Not long after that, I sat at the small table in the water tower’s kitchen, holding a manila envelope the postman had just handed me. It was from the coroner’s office in Colorado. It hadn’t occurred to me that there would be a death certificate. I certainly didn’t need a piece of paper to tell me Greg was dead.
I was afraid to open the letter; I was afraid of everything then. Life seemed filled with danger. I tore open the flap. I don’t remember anything it said other than the cause of death: Suicide. A bullet from a .22 rifle had entered Greg’s right temple and lodged in the brain, causing “massive hemorrhaging and death.”
My high-school lover, my college cohort, my husband, had put the muzzle of his rifle to his temple, not his mouth. It was a strange relief to know all that blood had come from one small hole in the side of his head.
I ’d been calling Sharon regularly to check on Neva, my dog, and finally the necessary papers were in order to have her sent to me. When I picked her up at the Oakland Airport, driving my parents’ Dodge Colt, Neva was still dazed by the tranquilizers meant to keep her quiet while she was stuffed into a small cage and pushed alone into the cold belly of a plane. As I opened the kennel and reached in, she let out long, undulating, lonely howls. I pulled her out and left the empty cage next to a large trash can. Neva and I walked to the Dodge, and she jumped in the passenger seat, where she could best observe her new territory.
The next day we began to explore the back roads in the hills, finding parks where we would walk under tall trees, sit by creeks, and swim in calm waters. Our favorite place was Lake Anza, where Neva, with her frisbee, was on a constant lookout for new people to play with. So was I.