A Dismal Paradise — Part One

By Ashley Davidson

Elaine doesn’t have to glance down at the odometer to gauge how far she’s come; her body knows the road, its bends, its dips and rises. She’s only gone along with this out of friendship, care for Sandy so he can care for Laura—she’s told herself that from the very beginning, and yet there’s an excitement, shameful but undeniable the closer she gets to the turn-off, a rising breathless flush. She thumbs a Life Saver off the roll Dale keeps in the truck’s ashtray. It’s silly, but she can’t help feeling a little giddy, glamorous even, pretty in a way she never was as a young woman. She sits up taller, catching her reflection in the rearview: silver bangs, rosy cheeks sucked in, skeletal almost, and of course that makes her think of Laura. She releases the pressure on the mint, a guilty suctioning.

“Again?” Dale asked, when she scooped the truck keys from the blue bowl twenty minutes earlier. “Haven’t you done your share this week?”

“Angie still has a cold. We all have to pitch in.” She shrugged. “This is what we signed up for.”

Dale sighed. His reading glasses, missing an arm, slipped down to the end of his nose, cockeyed so that he must only have been able to see through one lens. He’s rebuilt engines on half the trucks in Dismal, but refuses to fit one tiny screw into the joint of his cheaters. “Want me to come with you?” he asked.

“Sandy’ll be there,” she said, struggling to keep her voice even, swallowing a hiccup of excitement. “He’ll help me get her into the tub.”

“The tub,” Dale said. The very mention of it defeated him, the tub and everything it entails: undressing, lifting, washing, re-diapering. In the measure that it’s possible, they try to respect Laura’s privacy. Women are assigned the more intimate tasks: hygiene, massage, changing catheters. Not to say that Dale hasn’t seen Laura’s body, long and supple, diving into the pond, or stepping gingerly into the steaming pools of the old Miller hot springs. He’s seen it hundreds of times over twenty years of friendship, all the husbands have, but there’s a prudishness now, Laura’s body no longer strictly hers, more a collective bundle of sticks wrapped in pink sweatpants. It shames Elaine, thinking of her like this.

“The tub,” Dale repeated.

“She can’t help it,” Elaine said.

“I know that,” he said. “It’s you I’m thinking about. You’ll wear yourself down.”

“She’d do it for me,” Elaine said. “She would have.”

He squinted one eye and nodded, wincing as his tongue probed his sore tooth. She’s been on him to get it looked at down in Anchorage, whenever they do a Costco run.

She could see he was thinking of Laura keeping them company after Gabe died, when even shuffling across the kitchen to dump coffee grinds into the compost pail seemed an impossible distance. Ten years ago Laura was young; she had the energy. Even now, she is only forty-two.

“Call me if you need me,” Dale said.

“I will.” Elaine understood the heaviness in his voice; he’d let his mind wander into that closed-off room. The secret is not to think about it head-on. If you catch yourself going there, focus on the task at hand: peanut butter, toast, knit, pearl, weeds, bean-rows, clutch, gas.

Alone in the truck, there’s no denying the lightness, sailing along the smooth asphalt spur road, her heart racing. She tries to reason with herself, to assess the situation. Sandy’s a human being. He has needs. Five months of intimacy—temporary intimacy—so what?

Everybody has to pitch in.

Every day is a gift.

The clinic nurse who trained them was full of these moralizing platitudes.

*   *   *

It’s easy to spot the turnoff ahead, two toilets Sandy salvaged planted on either side of the driveway. The bowls once overflowed with tissue-paper-thin azaleas, white petunias striated with indigo—striated, that’s a Laura word—enormous with midnight sun. Tourists used to get a kick out of the toilets, pull off onto the gravel shoulder to pose for pictures: Greetings from scenic Alaska.

Princess buses still whoosh past on the way to the new lodge outside Talkeetna, five or six a day in season. Laura used to gripe about the drivers slowing down, prompting passengers to get their cameras ready, the way they all griped about Princess, tourists, the new lodge, which leveled Miller’s hill. Laura must have had her picture taken hundreds of times as she groomed and weeded the toilets, her image carried off in the film rolls of strangers: luminous skin that both tanned and freckled, hair so black it was almost blue, high round cheekbones that narrowed to a pointed chin capable of producing a wide, toothy smile, green eyes flecked with copper. Once an RV drove off the road rubbernecking.

Motorhome-wrecker, Sandy teased her.

The lodge’s more expensive rooms face McKinley. The mountain is socked-in by cloud-cover most days, so instead tourists watch the bush planes sweep off the airstrip behind the lodge, headed for the glacier. Sandy sees them from the air, noses pressed to the glass, sad but hopeful, waiting for the mountain to appear.

Elaine pops the truck into neutral and glides, preparing to turn in—this saves gas Dale has often explained, not because he is especially cheap or didactic, though he can be both, but because he understands how an engine works, appreciates the beauty of its predictable, orderly functionality. Sometimes, when he thinks no one’s watching, he’ll run his palm up the side-panel of a car as along the swollen, suffering belly of a cow.

They kept a milk cow once, plus chickens, hogs, and meat rabbits when the boys were young. The only animal Sandy and Laura ever had was a pet—an Irish setter, Buster, who went white in the face and wandered off into the woods one summer, sparing them the end. They searched for him for weeks. Sandy hacked through the undergrowth with a machete; he’d dug a grave; he wanted to put Buster in it. Laura had an easier time accepting it. She was a scientist—is—verbs have been giving Elaine trouble lately.

She sees Laura—kneeling by her flowers, smear of dirt across her forehead, hair piled in a sloppy bun on top of her head—and nearly misses the turn, hooks the wheel, heaving against the truck door, bouncing up through the weedy entrance. Laura would laugh: the idea of her still enough to cause a wreck. Her beauty was always a joke to her.

The boys both had crushes on her when they were young, Gabe especially, seven to Laura’s twenty-two, the year she arrived. She was sly, fun, only ten years older than Ben and not above pushing them off the berm into the pond.

Who says you get to be the only cradle-robber around here? she teased Sandy if he got moody, turned her attention to the boys. She’d tease Dale too, gently. He blushed easily and would make an excuse to stand up, busy himself—gathering kindling, checking on the beers cooling in the creek—put an end to it before it got started. Elaine knew the teasing felt to him too much like flirting—he’d catch her eye, embarrassed this pretty girl was after him. His quick escapes always made Elaine feel a little tug of affection.

The boys stood too close to Laura on purpose, arms to their chests, waiting to fend off the shove. They shot up from the pond’s soft clay bottom, slinging straps of water off their hair. Sometimes she took them out in the aluminum canoe and wrestled them overboard, rowing back alone, out of breath, boys dog-paddling behind.

Grave-robber, Sandy teased when she cozied back up to him. He was like the boys, begging to be splashed.

The driveway is long, more than half a mile, and rocky, dirt worn away by the helping cars. Broad leaves of devil’s club and cow parsnip brush the windows, a green tunnel leading to the house: two-stories, dark-stained boards paneled vertically, making it look taller. The backside of the house is windowless; the slam of the truck door announces her arrival.

She leaves the keys in the ignition, pushes through the insulated door, six inches thick, into the mudroom, steps out of her clogs. Through the inner door’s round portal—salvaged from an old plane—she sees Sandy stooping at the telescope pointed out the bank of windows, down toward the wetlands, the pond where the otter lives alone, now that the beavers have abandoned it, built their new lodge along the swamp’s far shore. This was Laura’s favorite pastime, observing the grebes and black-billed diving ducks, charting a beaver’s paddling, gnawed willow branch clamped in his jaw, only his head visible, snuffling like a dog.

Sandy’s lips are moving, forehead pressed to the telescope’s eyepiece, narrating the scene to Laura on the railed bed, outside Elaine’s field of vision. He’s crinkle-eyed, lean, rangy, wears the same trimmed beard as thirty years ago, though his graying hair is buzzed close—he let it grow long for a while; Laura used to cut it for him—but now he’s started using the electric razor.

How easily we adapt, Laura would say.