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.
“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.
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.