A Dismal Paradise

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.

Part Two

In profile Sandy’s nose appears straight, but head-on there’s a bulge to it, an old football break. Rusty-brown still shows in his beard, his eyes a bright, disconcerting blue. It’s hard for Elaine to read emotion in them; for that she must rely on other things: the force with which he sets a coffee mug down on the counter, the speed and intensity of the shushing sound the legs of his jeans make when he walks. He sleeps downstairs now, on the hide-a-bed a few feet from Laura, so that, in the dark, he can reach his hand out under her nose, holding his breath until he feels the moist shallow huff of hers fill his cupped palm. There were times this past winter, after the all-day darkness settled in and the gleaming black windowpanes reflected only the interior of Laura and Sandy’s house—its telescope and bookcases—when it felt as though she, Sandy, and Laura were the only people left on earth.

Elaine watches a moment longer: Sandy straightens up, gives his back a break, telescope still adjusted at the height of Laura’s head strapped in her chair. He must take solace in the fact that she still hears, that the old Laura—the Laura of midnight skinny dips and bonfires—is still in there somewhere.

He jerks, surprised when Elaine heaves open the door, although, if he has glanced at the schedule, he knows she is exactly on time. Some people sign up just to sit with Laura for an hour or two if there’s an errand he needs to run, some old buddy from his bush-flight days he’d like to go into Talkeetna to drink a beer with. But it makes Elaine too anxious to be left alone with her now. When it was just beginning to affect her voice, when Elaine could still understand her, she didn’t mind. Then came the period when only Sandy could understand, until finally the last remnant of Laura’s howling laugh, the peaks of joy and valleys of low-toned confession, her gushing voice, dried up. It seems to Elaine that Laura still speaks, fixing her with eerie concentration, eyes insistent, as though there’s something vital she’s trying to impart. Elaine will do anything to avoid it, even volunteer for the baths, a chore everyone seems to feel is Elaine’s natural responsibility; Dale has known Sandy the longest.

Laura is not in bed after all, but strapped in the electric wheelchair, though she can no longer maneuver the gearstick that controls its movement. Still, Sandy has raised her from bed, lifted her into it.

Knees bent, back straight, the clinic nurse had instructed. There’s a right way and a wrong way. They were almost all in their fifties and sixties; they filled the bottom level of the house. Elaine has known most of them for years, taught their kids, traipsed to their homes for potlucks, book clubs, knitting circles. In a community the size of Dismal, you learn to mend. There aren’t enough people to be choosy. You don’t discard friendships; you darn and patch. The clinic nurse showed them how to change the sheets around Laura, rotate her position to prevent bedsores, massage her legs to slow the atrophy, how to flick syringes, forcing air bubbles to rise.

“Elaine’s here,” Sandy announces, his voice a paper screen Elaine sees shadows shifting behind. She feels a tingle in her abdomen, a carbonation; she can’t draw in enough air.

“Scar Face is putting on a show.” Sandy winks, presses his eye to the telescope again. “He’s been swimming circles all day, huh Laure?”

The skin at the corners of Sandy’s eyes crinkles, flirting, making a game of not looking at her and Elaine sees he’s been looking forward to her name on the schedule since yesterday, the way she has, eying the photocopy on the side of the fridge at home as she rinsed dishes, the day and hour already predetermined.

“Did you run it?” Elaine asks, tipping her head toward the bathroom.

“No,” Sandy says. “I was waiting for you.”

She pushes up her sleeves, opens the faucet; water chugs into the tub. They’re quick. Usually, he doesn’t even lower his pants. He’s fashioned towel-rods out of willow branches the beavers have gnawed, sanding the toothmarks smooth. Sometimes Elaine grabs onto one to steady herself. She is like the casseroles in the freezer, sating an appetite, giving Sandy the energy to endure the long solitary evenings. She imagines explaining it like that to Dale, because what is less romantic than a casserole?

She crouches, tests the temperature with her hand. Sandy comes in, thrill tracing up her spine. Normally, he shuts the door quietly behind him but does not lock it, turning to face her with the bashful politeness of a boy standing before an experienced woman, though she is less than a year his senior. She keeps her back to him, waits for his arm to circle her waist, unbutton her jeans—she’s slimmed down some; the button doesn’t leave a red mark in the pouch of her belly as it did when they started—his other hand groping up under her bra, but instead he scoots past, reaches for the electric razor charging in its plastic cradle.

“I’ll just take this,” he apologizes, edging out without raising his eyes, close enough that she catches the faintly chemical scent of his spray-can deodorant.

Laura’s neck is crooked back against the padded support, eyes roving the ceiling.

“Mind if I drive for a minute?” Elaine asks, relieved to not have to meet Laura’s gaze. Her face is hot with a shame teetering dangerously close to anger. She rams the gear stick forward, edging around in front of the chair, walking backwards, wheels clattering over the threshold, onto the tile. In her head, she scrolls through the other names on the schedule for the one who has replaced her. Not Angie, obviously. Cathy maybe, she’s timid, but Lord knows Brian has done his share of running around on her. Sandy’s a soft touch, knows what he’s doing, takes his time—looks you in the eye, then away, shy, then back, deeper, until you feel the spreading warmth, the full spotlight of his desire.

The bathroom is steamy, towel, sponge, yellow canister of baby powder positioned within easy reach. Elaine works quickly, pulling apart snaps. Originally, Angie altered Laura’s regular clothes, slitting them up the sides and sewing in snaps, but her body has wasted so that the pools of excess cloth chaff. Now they dress her exclusively in altered sweat suits, the smallest sizes they can find. Elaine hears the buzz of the electric razor upstairs, decides not to call him—she can lift her herself.

“Ready, pretty lady?” Elaine asks, breathing in the sour musk of Laura’s skin, slack and dry, always dry. She weighs less than eighty pounds.

“Here we go.” Elaine slips one arm under to support Laura’s head and neck, and slides the other under the backs of her knees, a glint of terror in Laura’s eyes as she lowers her in; she can no longer dig in her nails, raise the pink welts of protest. Elaine hears the clonk of Sandy’s cowboy boots striking the loft floor overhead. She dunks the sponge, lathers baby soap, lifts Laura’s arm, pats the folds of elbow, armpit, places where the smell insinuates itself. She pauses to rest, out of breath from lifting Laura’s hips to get underneath. Laura stares at her, unnerving, a kind of hatred. She wipes the sponge over her forehead, dripping water closing Laura’s eyes—one of her few remaining reflexes.

“I’m sorry,” she says, reaching for a washcloth. She dabs at her forehead. Laura re-opens her eyes.

“Shame on you, Elaine,” Elaine says. Maybe she imagined that look. Anyway, it’s gone.

Sandy’s boots come down the stairs, a quick spilling step that Elaine’s heart, her dumb tuna-casserole heart, quickens to match. He raps twice, pops his head in.

“Could you stick around for an hour, while I run into town?” he asks, not really looking at either of them. His head is buzzed, neck clean-shaven, making his beard look redder. The top button of his flannel reveals a white triangle of undershirt. “Won’t be more than an hour.”

“Sure.” Elaine bristles, her hold on Laura slipping. Water sloshes. She twists to shore her up. His aftershave is overpowering; he shouldn’t be so close to Laura with it on, not good for her breathing.

“You want help getting her out?” he asks.

“No,” Elaine says, not wanting him to see the red splotches on her chest—she’d worn a scoop-necked shirt. A ridiculous shirt. Laura’s eyes search her face with a glimmer of amusement. “You go ahead, we’re fine.”

“Elaine, you’re the best.” He winks, a tick with him.

“Back in a few, pretty lady,” he says, leaning to plant a kiss on Laura’s forehead.

The clinic nurse said: never leave the house without saying goodbye.

She listens for the thump of the mudroom door, the Jeep turning over, reaches for the towel.

“Upsy-daisy.” She feels Laura inhaling her moist neck; what catalogue of scents she must detect there.

The electric hospital bed is pushed against the windows looking down on the pond, the marsh: the Dismal Swamp. A metal triangle still hangs overhead, vestige of a time when Laura, straining, could raise herself a few inches, enough for Elaine to reach under, strip back the soiled sheets.

“Let’s see what that bad boy is up to,” Elaine suggests, scouting the swamp for the otter, who appeared two summers ago, alone, a few weeks before the first sign of Laura’s illness.

Elaine never expected Sandy to marry. He was Dale’s bachelor friend who spent summers charming the shorts off backpackers and winters holed up, recuperating. Getting too old for this he’d wink, sit back with a groan, accepting a bowl of potluck chili and cornbread—they all looked after him, even then. A man who needs women, Elaine’s mother would have said.

A few months after the diagnosis, Sandy tried to drive the otter off, yelling, throwing stones, attacking the abandoned beaver lodge it was squatting in with an ax.

“He needs to cry, but he won’t,” Laura had confided. Elaine was helping her put papers in order, sitting on the floor, sorting. “He thinks he’s angry.”

There will be no respirator. Laura doesn’t want that—didn’t. Who knows what Laura wants now.

Elaine rubs lotion into her shins, pressing her thumb up the weak cords, puts on her socks, pulls the legs of her sweatpants back down over them.

“The cat’s away,” she says. “Where are your dancing shoes?”

Part Three

“Everything okay?” Dale asks, looking up from chopping greens off garden carrots.

“Tired,” Elaine says.

The big knife thunks the breadboard. They’ve had it almost as long as they’ve been married, wooden handle discolored, dark and a little slimy.

“What are you making?”

“Salad,” Dale says. He pops a carrot in his mouth and crunches it. Innocent salad.

“Now?” she asks crankily, dropping into a kitchen chair.

“Have some,” he says, clanking a bowl down in front of her: chopped carrots topped with bacon bits and croutons, doused with Thousand Island. He stirs his around, takes a loud crunching bite.

“You’re really going to eat that now?”  Elaine asks.

“Why not?” Dale asks. “I could think of worse things.”

If he wanted to, Dale could walk over, meet her at Laura and Sandy’s place, on the rise overlooking Dismal Swamp; it’s only two miles as the crow flies. In the truck, it’s fifteen point three exactly: left at the T onto the spur, second driveway past mile marker eight, headed toward Talkeetna. In her mind, she sees herself still sitting there at the table when Sandy came in. He pulled a chair out for himself, a prickling silence. She steeled herself—get up, but her hands were shaking and she didn’t want him to see. They sat for a while until, casually, Sandy reached down and pulled her foot up into his lap, no explanation, no apology. He worked her sock down and pressed his thumbs up the solid flesh of her calf, admired its curve, its heft. Elaine had been startled, but she gave in, her breathing quickening with the progress of his hand. Restrained by the denim, he could only reach an inch above the knee. When he finally looked up at her it, it was with a kind of helpless boyish remorse: you know me, Elaine. You know what I’m like.

*   *   *

Sandy took them out to look at the land when it was first for sale. There was a sign, dark brown letters burned into a honey-colored plank: Beware Swamp Monster. They hiked in to the natural meadow where he and Laura later built their house—Dale helping with the framing, the sheetrock, the roof. The marsh was a series of smaller stagnant ponds then, only recently damned up by the beavers. Laura fell in love with it immediately, beavers wading through the reeds to gnaw the willows along the banks, hunting sheepshead and other junk fish, a buggy paradise.

It might seem strange, given their age difference, certainly there were other women Elaine had known longer, but Laura was—is—no, was—Elaine’s closest friend. The summer Sandy met her she was just another pretty college girl, he went through four or five a season, friendly, careless girls, gone by the end of August. He met her in June and eight weeks later she was still around. They all went down to Anchorage together on a Costco run while the boys slept over with friends. Sandy and Laura had had a fight; he wanted her to go back to the Lower 48, finish her degree, she accused him of trying to get rid of her. Elaine felt the hurt tension in the close air of the truck. Dale caught her eye: want to ditch them? Elaine nodded and a quick smile crossed his face, hung at the side of his mouth.

Sandy had the bush pilot’s swagger, a wide, turned-out stance, as though he had just slid down off a horse. He was twice Laura’s age then, a little rough around the edges—but still an appealing man, even now, lank and fit, no paunch. She was taller by an inch or so. Though he held Laura at a distance as they took a quick walk along the coast to stretch their legs before driving home, Elaine saw how his eyes followed her when she slid down the rock outcropping, past the danger signs, and hopped out the mud flats toward the bay. He didn’t call after her, but worry showed in his face, as if he’d risen up onto his tiptoes; Elaine felt a kind of motherly obligation to follow. They stripped to their underwear there at the water’s edge, waded out into the steel-grey surf. Elaine felt a surge of exhilaration with the shock of cold, emerging pale, gritty and goose-fleshed, hurrying to pull her jeans back on, denim catching wet skin. Laura raked her fingers through her hair, twisted out the water, radiant, and both of them were seized by spasms of giddy shivering.

They scrambled back up. Dale threw his coat over Elaine’s shoulders, rubbing her arms. Sandy took his off too, but Laura, refused it; she was still angry. She hugged herself, hands crammed under her armpits, childish, stubborn: I don’t need you. Sandy folded the coat over his arm for a while, then slipped back into it. Elaine had felt a little sorry for him.

*   *   *

Today she feeds Laura soup, cupping a hand under the tilted spoon to catch drips, waiting for the gargle, the struggling swallow. Laura chokes easily now, a constant risk, nerve-wracking to the point that the thunk of Elaine’s heart makes her hand shake. She has to take a moment, press her palm to her chest, calm it; it’s important that the hand that holds the spoon be steady. The soups used to be thick, frothy from the blender, but these days they are more like broths. The quantities are smaller too, a quarter-cup at most, though it takes longer and longer for Laura to consume them.

Lately, Elaine has begun bickering with Angie, who handles scheduling, to be assigned cleaning or laundry, tasks she can complete without having to bring her face so close to Laura’s. Tasks that don’t require Elaine to cradle her friend’s head, to feel the clammy flesh of Laura’s ear pressed into her palm, to whisper softly, encouragingly: come on, two more bites, you can do it. If Laura could speak, she’d say Jesus Christ, will you quit being so condescending, please?

I’m sorry.

If you’re sorry, stop.

*   *   *

In the end, Sandy bought the swamp. He and Laura lived in a rental in Talkeetna that first winter, then built the house, its windows. In season, while Sandy ferried tourists up to the glacier, Laura kept a log of the beavers’ activities, hiked through the woods to Dale and Elaine’s, learned to stew and bottle tomatoes, to boil blueberries into jam, borrowed the boys for help picking. Gabe and Ben adored her, always teasing, more an older sister than their mother’s friend. Once Sandy came home from a charter trip to Nome and found Laura had split three cords of wood herself.

“I was going to do that,” he said.

“Why should I wait for you?” Laura’s hair was piled in a sloppy bun, skewered with a pencil, one of Sandy’s old shirts rolled up to her elbows, unfazed by her own loveliness. She finished her degree by correspondence, took a job coordinating the school district’s science programming. She trekked through the woods with the children, taught them to name the plants, the birds, rolled over logs to reveal grubs as plump as the potato gnocchi she sometimes cooked for potlucks.

It was a twitch in her arm first, a sort of jumpy nerve, like a guitar string being plucked, then a difficulty turning the handle of a door. Sandy drove her to the clinic—for a long time she refused to go—then finally down to the hospital in Anchorage. He quit flying. For the first year and a half, he did it all himself: buttoning jeans, lacing boots, folding and unfolding the wheelchair and stowing it in the Jeep, carrying her out to the gravel bar to sit and watch the river. A few times, Elaine and Dale ran into them at the Roadhouse, Sandy leaning across the table, cutting up an oversized pancake draped over the side of her plate. At home, he adjusted her telescope, massaged her arms and legs. It must have been satisfying at first, to be so needed.

Finally, this past fall, their friends and neighbors all got together and worked out a schedule. Sandy hasn’t had to cook a meal since. The freezer is stocked with homemade soups, enchilada casseroles wrapped in tinfoil, root cellar loaded with last summer’s blueberry preserves, tomato jam. The gold jar lids, painted with dark green outlines of apples, pears, horns of plenty, are coated now in greasy skins of dust and Laura has become unrecognizable, bent and gaunt, a shrunken version of herself.

Sandy and Dale have known each other since they were six years old, once spent half a night huddled together in a neighbor’s outhouse waiting out a bear. It kept pawing at the door, held closed from the inside, wanting in. But it’s Laura and Elaine who are—who were, at least—friends. Sandy and Dale were friendly, lending a hand when a new outhouse pit needed digging, but it was Laura who blazed through the woods every day for a month after Gabe’s accident, when black ice still glassed the dips in the road. Laura who rocked by the woodstove downstairs talking to Dale on the days Elaine refused to come down, refused to enter the world of the living. Laura understood the importance of a presence, of a body filling an empty chair.

She and Sandy never had kids. She loved the boys, Gabe especially—he was almost young enough to be hers.

*   *   *

There’s Laura, kneeling in the black dirt, tending her toilet bowls, evening sunlight flickering, cottonwood fluffs caught in her hair. She wipes her forehead with the back of her wrist, garden shovel in her hand, tosses her hair back and frowns deeply. She’s not wearing her gardening gloves, the yellow suede ones—where are they? Elaine looks down at the truck’s bench seat, as though she might have accidentally taken the gloves, pushes aside her sweatshirt. When she looks back up, Laura is gone. The truck hits a cavernous pothole in front of the sled dog farm at mile marker nine, a bone-jarring jolt. The huskies, stake-chained, sit erect and regal on the roofs of their kennels, pale eyes watching.

Over the winter, Elaine cross-country skied here, across the valley and up through the woods to the spur road. A few times, Dale came along, drank hot tea and kept Sandy company while Elaine bathed or fed Laura. She felt clumsy and obvious with Dale there, reaching more often for the roll of paper towels, dabbing splotches of soup off Laura’s loose sweatshirts. Afterwards, when they skied home, she would snap at Dale for letting a branch swish in her face, or for going too slowly down a hill, until he stopped offering to go with her.

In a lot of ways, skiing had been easier. It gave Elaine more time to think afterwards, allowed her to push herself, waves of blood surging through her stout solid body. She’d arrive home breathless, soaring, and only after she’d knocked her skis off against the front step, pushed open the door, stripped off her parka, would the ache and soreness begin to overtake her—it left no energy for guilt. She’s tried walking, but it doesn’t tire her out the same way. What she likes about driving is that she can leave quickly, the smooth, repetitive pulse of the tires along the spur similar to the slide of skis, their rhythmic hiss cutting through snow.

She gets back to mile marker eight, turns in at the toilets—barely visible behind a blind of weeds. She bathes Laura, administers her evening medicine, then lets Sandy lead her upstairs to the bed in the loft. There’s no wall separating it from the open space below and although they are quiet, Laura must hear. Elaine pushes the thought from her mind, but it comes back. She shoves it away, crying out.

When Elaine slips outside later, the otter is swimming across the big pond toward her. She watches his progress, the rippling V of his wake. For a long time, Laura thought the otter was female because of the scars—mating is violent. She laughed when she discovered her mistake. It wasn’t long after that she lost her footing and tipped forward, slammed her head against the floorboards so hard the whole side of her face bruised. Laura had names for the whole colony of beavers, though they looked exactly alike to Elaine. Or is it a family? A murder, a skulk, a dule, a grist—these answers are all locked inside Laura, as is her ability to observe and catalogue minute details: a notch in the ear, a whisker askew, a hair pinched from a sweater, an extra mug in the drying rack—and to draw from these a personal and specific meaning.

The otter is getting closer. Suddenly Elaine is afraid. She hops in the truck, locks the door, feeling foolish. What? You think he’ll come after you?

She forces herself to slow down, truck bumping and juddering over rocks. She rattled the muffler loose a few weeks ago. Dale had been able to repair it, but first he’d asked her, a little apologetically, to follow him down into the trench he’d dug behind his shop and under the braced wooden track he’d backed the car out onto. He’d built the track himself to get around installing a lift. Together, they ducked underneath the truck’s chassis and he pointed out the damage, examining her face, searching it for penitence. He said if she kept it up she might crack the truck’s rear axle.

“Okay,” she said.

“Okay.” He nodded, satisfied.

Dale’s never been handsome, though he has a nice face, broad with wide-set brown eyes, wavy gray ponytail, thick brush of mustache. He’s always been on the husky side, a slab of gut filling his shirts, meaty neck and shoulders. He’s loyal, caring, a good father, two feet on the ground. Even when he swears he limits himself to terms clearly rooted in the animal world—all bullcrap and horseshit, never the more lurid curses Sandy favors—cunt, cocksucker, words that ping in the pit of Elaine’s stomach.

“That you?” Dale calls from the living room when she comes in.

“Yeah,” she calls back.

“Did you eat?” The house smells of fresh bread. He looks up from his book, cheaters lopsided. “Don’t go all skinny on me now.”

Part Four

Laura struggled with Sandy, but he was never so tender as after her diagnosis, when, like calamitous weather, they knew what was coming, just not when it would hit. The happiest time in their marriage, Laura said.

There were times Elaine envied Laura—envy isn’t quite the right word—it was more like admiration—Laura so young and vibrant, so herself, taking such pleasure in the world—in the bright coins of sunlight skipping across the brown pond, the cottonwood fluff carried by the breeze. Not long after they bought the swamp—when there was nothing on it, not even a driveway, just twenty acres of white spruce and marshland—they had a picnic. The boys played in the reeds, held cattails cigars between two fingers, while Dale and Elaine and Sandy and Laura sat on the site where the house would go, perhaps right here where Elaine stands now. They ate sandwiches, drank a bottle of tequila. Elaine stretched her legs out in front of her as the other three grew goofy, loose-limbed, around the campfire. Laura lay back on Elaine’s legs and stared at the bright sky.

“No stars,” Laura said. “It’s midnight. I want stars.” Elaine saw Sandy shift, as though this were the first of many things she would ask that he could not give. Tendrils of Laura’s dark hair tickled Elaine’s bare legs and Elaine stroked it, she the mother and Laura her heartsick and beautiful daughter.

Sandy could be moody, vain about his looks. He might have made an okay father to girls, but he wasn’t like Dale, didn’t have the strength, the patience, the even keel to raise boys.

*   *   *

Dale brings folding chairs from the shed. Elaine cuts thick slices of zucchini bread, knife smeared with the gooey melt of chocolate chips, rinses out dusty jam jars for drinking glasses. In a few minutes, cars will fill the yard. She knows each of them by the sound of their engines, the high addling pitch of Angie’s van, the throaty baritone of Kim and Eddie’s old Dodge.

They used to have these meetings at Laura and Sandy’s, but the noise and activity disturb the church silence of the house, so they rotate, potluck. Lately, a counselor from the clinic has been coming to talk about self-care, anger, acceptance. Elaine doesn’t speak at these meetings. Doesn’t really listen. She feels the hot flush on her cheeks, surrounded by the din and prattle of her neighbors, drawers sliding open—they all know their way around each other’s kitchens, where to find a can-opener, a coffee filter, a tin of condensed milk. They’ve almost all put on weight over the years, softened, skin pink and sun-spotted. She eyes Cathy, searching for some sign, but she can’t imagine it, Sandy’s finger tracing from the point of her chin down her throat, along her collarbone. Look at them, so chatty, matronly. But then, who would ever suspect Elaine in her stern retired teacherliness, her short and practical silver hair? She knows people think her harsh. When the boys were growing up it was Dale they went to for comfort, Dale who squeezed the webbing of their hands to relieve the pain of a splinter while he tweezed it out, Dale whose shirt front they wet, their heartbreaks made incomprehensible by sobs. It’s because they’re boys, Elaine had told herself, but really she knew it was Dale’s gentleness, that way he has of making you comfortable first—sit down, warm up—before he asks anything.

Angie calls out calendar dates, takes names. They used to plan for a month, but there might not be that long left, so they’ve gone down to two weeks. There’s always a strange cheeriness after the scheduling is done, the next weeks of their lives mapped out.

Dale talks to the men about who will pitch in winter firewood. It’s too much to ask Sandy to think that far ahead.

*   *   *

Becky calls; she has today’s morning duty. “Can I ask you a favor?”

“Great, you’re here,” Sandy says, pulling open the mudroom door—he must have heard the truck. He’s unshaven, pouches under his eyes. “We had kind of a rough night.” There’s a crease between his eyes, like he’s fighting a headache. “She’ll probably sleep the whole time.”

The scent of his aftershave, of coffee grounds dumped into the compost pail beside the sink, hangs in the air. The house feels spare, a touch too cool. She walks through, checking he hasn’t left a window open. It’s not like her house, refrigerator plastered with photographs and magnets, shelves of seal ivory figurines, commemorative plates. Laura and Sandy never accumulated knicknacks—when they traveled they rarely brought things back.

“Are you cold?” Elaine asks, her voice ringing.

The nurse has encouraged them to speak to Laura. She’s in there. She hears you. She pulls a chair beside the bed. Laura’s eyes flicker, wakened by the drag of chair legs.

“Hi,” Elaine says.

Laura’s eyes flit back and forth. Elaine looks up, searching for a moth or a dust mote, a lump in her throat.

When Laura told her her plans—it seems such a long time ago now—they both held large mugs of tea close to their bodies, warming their hands. Elaine watched Laura’s nervously, worried she might spill it, as Laura explained she’d hired a man in Talkeetna to drive her body to Anchorage for cremation. The man owned a charter bus; their friends and her body could all ride comfortably. She’d rented out a block of hotel rooms, arranged a five-course meal, written all the checks. “A last hurrah,” she gushed.

Elaine spilled hot tea in her lap. “I’m sorry,” she said, putting down her mug.

“It’s taken care of,” Laura said, got up, handed her a dishrag. “You know Sandy’s no good with that stuff.”

The dishrag was meant for the tea, Elaine realized, from the way Laura looked at her after she wiped her eyes with it. Who gave you the right to cry?

Sandy returns around noon, warms a bowl of soup.

“Stick around,” he says. “Keep us company.” He gets Laura up, feeds her, talking the whole time, expert.

He’s in high spirits. He met a buddy in town who’s guiding summit trips.

“The ravens are opening the coolers.” He draws the half-empty spoon away from Laura’s lips. “They have to bury the damn things in the snow. They drive a stake in, flag it so they can find it again.” Sandy skims the soup, scrapes the bottom of the spoon against the rim of the bowl, cups his hand under it. “Those cocksuckers are so smart, they call out when they spot a flag now, get the others to come help them dig it up. They know there’s food there. You believe that?” He brings the spoon back to Laura’s lips, her eyes, Elaine notices, shining.

This is a private moment, she realizes. I shouldn’t be here. I should leave.

Sandy tosses a slash of uneaten soup into the sink, turns on the tap to wash it down, hums to himself. It’s Cathy—shy, self-effacing Cathy who runs the bakery cash register at the Roadhouse who tells her later about the redhead, a backpacker. How she lit up when Sandy came in.

“I understand, I mean, I don’t blame him…” Cathy whispers. “But still. That doesn’t make it right.”

Elaine feels the hurt, the little seed of jealousy, but she is surprised at the relief. She wondered how it would end, but she did not expect to feel relieved.

*   *   *

Elaine squats beside the bathtub, lifts Laura’s arm, squeezes soapy water from the washcloth. She talks, a natural flow, like she used to, tells her about the first time she took the boys for a walk in the cemetery in Talkeetna, how Gabe dragged his small hand over the stones, the place a strange but magical garden. Laura was always a good listener: a great quiet expanse of attention.

The mountain is out, visible from the bank of windows: curtains of timber drawn back by the wide-open pond, a glassy brown stage, and, centered behind it, the huge white iceberg of mountain. Greetings from scenic Alaska.

She’s tidying up the bathroom when she hears the rattle start. She comes out, wet towel still in her hand. Sandy looks to her for help, spooked; he’s forgotten the clinic nurse’s advice.

“Go sit by her,” Elaine says. “Hold her hand.”

Part Five

When they came back from Anchorage, from the meal, the nights in the hotel, they dropped Sandy off home. The next day, he spread her ashes in the pond, then drove into Talkeetna and drank until Cathy’s husband had to haul him back to their place and keep him for a day. He was stiff with them all after that. Dale went over to check on him and came back an hour later with nothing to say.

There was a time, after Gabe’s wreck, when every time she shut her eyes she heard the squeal of brakes, felt the skid, the impact, smelled the bitter tang of gasoline.

“Hey,” Laura used to say, when she could see Elaine going there. “Come back.”     She’s held it together all week, but this morning tears leak down her nose.

“You okay?” Dale asks. She nods, scowling, angry with him for catching her, ashamed. She knows she can’t tell him, but sometimes, when he hugs her, she comes close.

“It’s a lot,” he says. “I know.”

*   *   *

Ben calls from the Lower 48.

“Mom?” he asks, sensing she’s not listening.

Once, when he and Gabe were little, up at Miller Springs, Laura let them slather her with mud until only the whites of her eyes showed—a beautiful monster—and spoke in a funny dimwit-dinosaur drawl. Ben got bashful and slipped away, like Dale, but Gabe laughed and laughed, until Elaine got worried the water might be too hot for him, his face so pink. She took his hand and made him get out with her for a minute and run around in the cool air. Laura got out too, pretended to stumble after them, growling “Be-ware, be-ware,” Gabe shrieking, steam rising off their bodies in plumes.

“Mom?” Ben asks.

“I’m here,” she says.

“Is everything okay?” he asks.

“Everything’s fine.”

“Can I talk to Dad?” he asks, like he doesn’t quite believe her.

“Sure,” she says, then remembers he went over to Sandy’s again.

“Is everything okay with you guys?”

“Of course,” she says. “Of course.” She hears the uncertainty of the second unravel the certainty of the first.

*   *   *

They go over to Kim and Eddie’s. Eddie’s grandkids are having a field day with the ducks, chasing them around the yard, a bunch of flapping, honking lunatics.

“I feel like I need a nap,” Elaine says when they get home. Dale deposits the truck keys in the bowl.

“So take one,” Dale says, scooping the keys back out.

“Where are you going?” she asks.

“Check on Sandy.”

She lies flat on her back, but cannot stop thinking. She tries to knit. What’s taking so long? Should she walk over? She goes to weed the beans, but he’s done it already. She sits in the porch rocker until the motion takes effect; by the time his truck comes juddering up the driveway she’s in a kind of trance.

He’s soaked, the neck of his shirt torn.

“What…?” Elaine asks, but he shakes his head, runs a hand along his jaw; it’s swollen. She feels a gut-twist of fear.

“He was going after that otter.” A black gunk of blood has dried across the back of one hand.

He lets her clean the deep scrape on his arm, the split knuckles, wrinkling his forehead, drawing a hiss of air through his teeth. When she’s done, he says “thank you.” He’s proud, but not vain; it was Laura who first pointed that out.

He goes to check on Sandy again the next day. He doesn’t tell her how, but somehow they smooth things over.

*   *   *

Dale picks berries. Elaine boils vats of jam.

They make a Costco run to Anchorage and Dale finally gets his tooth looked at.

“That was a doozy,” the dentist’s assistant says. Three weeks later they drive back for the crown.

It’s late August, air already crisp with the promise of fall. They spend a morning canning the last of the summer tomatoes.

“Let’s walk over,” Dale says, coming in from his shop, black smear across his forehead.

“Now?” Elaine asks.

“Why not?”

They walk side by side through the woods, Elaine falling in behind where the path narrows, until they cross the spur.

“Wonder if these babies still work,” Dale says, wading into the weeds to jiggle the handle on one of the toilets, as though to stop the tank from running.

She tries to smile, to recognize the attempt, wraps herself more tightly around the pit of nervousness in her stomach.

Sandy’s Jeep is parked out front.

Dale looks at her. She licks her thumb, wipes the grease off his forehead.

“How long has that been there?” he asks, palming it.

“Hiya,” Sandy calls when Dale sticks his head in the mudroom door.

He seems himself, offers tea. He’s hauled Laura’s things out of closets and dressers and heaped them on the bed, to be donated.

“Let Elaine help,” Dale says. Work it out, mend it. He is giving them their time.

From upstairs, she watches Dale out the windows, carrying armloads of split wood, stacking it inside the shed.

Elaine shakes out an old blouse of Laura’s. Blue silk, a little faded.

“There’s a stain on that,” Sandy says.

Elaine turns it over. The clothes smell like Laura, like garden soil, cottonwood fluff. Laura right here, in this room.

Sandy takes it from her, finds it, holds it out to show her the spot.

“Ketchup.” He smiles, but it dissolves quickly. “You guys are okay?” he asks.

“I think so.”

“Good,” Sandy says. “I don’t, I mean—I shouldn’t have—I wasn’t-” he folds the shirt over his arm. The narrow shape of it hanging there makes Elaine suddenly aware of her heft. Sandy will go back to flying, a summer backpacker—lithe, wily, a little reckless—racing down the slope to the old aluminum canoe, pushing it out and hopping the side, forcing Sandy to slosh to his waist and heave himself in, dripping, breathless, heavy with his own mortality. He looks out at the pond, as though searching for himself and the girl there. Dale tosses wood onto the pile, a series of hollow knocks.

There are things about living here that are difficult to explain to outsiders. How it strips away veneers. How your needs boil down to warmth, shelter, sustenance, a little company. How sometimes you slip a needle free and pull out the last few rows of stitches to save the yarn; you may need it again.

The clatter of wood has stopped—Dale making one last lap around the house, confirming everything is in order. She clops down the stairs, heaves out the mudroom door.

It’s the sweater hour, light blurry and grey. Dale comes around the side of the shed. It’s time to start home, to their own house, cluttered and warm, to their own bed.