Leslee Rene Wright: Ghosts Across America

1.

We’re at Niagara Falls for the second time this year, and this time we opt for the New York side. We lost our lust for crossing into Canada somewhere between Erie and Buffalo, or, more rightly, just after our daughter died, some untold months ago. The little things that had once thrilled us—like exchanging our dollar bills for the faces of British Monarchs, or browsing the duty-free store in an aggressively-American fashion (Molson XXX for me, designer perfume for you)—they now seem a joyless prospect, leeched of all their anticipatory charm. Because of this, we also find it impossible to cross the footbridge to the more picturesque Canadian side, where one can see the river barge that crashed at the turn of the last century, or walk along the rim of the dramatic, aptly named Horseshoe Falls. Despite the bonus of such scenic attractions, the over saturation of buffets and mini-malls seem to cheapen the place. Even with the occasional drab casino, there is an inescapable air of pushy, family-style entertainment.

The footbridge to Canada is closed, anyway, roped off by plastic chain and a stark sign that reads: Closed for Winter Will Re – Open In May. A pair of Japanese men, sharp-dressed in cashmere coats, expensive cameras strangling their necks, gaze disbelievingly at the sign, then at the water that’s just a country’s-width away. When we were here last July, we’d seen the towering mist first. It was a promise of world-wonder, all our grade-school film strips finally brought forth into real life and eradicating what had previously been suspect due to distance and sheer, unimaginable size. But here in early March, there’s no mist to be seen, and the U.S. side is park-like, a wooded sanctuary of birdbaths and benches. The mounds of snow look as if they have been undisturbed for God knows how long, and the sidewalks are bluish, salt-crusted. The water isn’t nearly as loud as expected. You remind me that it had been thunderous last summer, that it seemed we had to shout to hear ourselves over it. We agree, that had been part of the fun.

After a half-hour’s worth of wandering, our low shoes filling with slush, we find the will to look down from the edge of the falls. Leaning out as far as we can, the iron railing pushes against our chests, spokes plucking at our coat buttons. The spray is icy, and I point out that the water has frozen to a shiny glaze in spots, coating the cliff-side and freezing old snow so that it remains in fossil-like deposits around the rocks in the river basin. You nod and don’t say much, though it’s too quiet inside this roaring. I pretend I hear church bells ringing in town. Coughing twice, quick and gruff, into your cupped hands, I see that you have a shoelace, pink and printed with cherries, wound between your three middlest fingers. It’s faded and snagged from familiar handling. You toy with it for a moment, then finally tie it into a neat bow around the railing, where it flutters merrily.

I had argued for more scientific tools than this—a tiny voice recorder that would pick up whispers from the other side, or one of those gadgets that reads electro-magnetic fields. You shuddered at the idea of such cold clap-trap; you wanted a more pure means of divining her spirit. Back home, you sat up every night with a ouija board, burning candles that smelled like cave moss. It took a lot of resolve not to point out to you that the ouija board was made by Parker Brothers and couldn’t be any more pure than something from Best Buy. You sensed the smart-ass observation dammed within me anyway, looked at me through the glare of candlelight and said It’s because it was hers, dummy. That it’s a Ouija Board’s got nothing to do with it. It’s true that she used to drag it out whenever she had a birthday party, holding up the box and asking if anyone wanted to consult the stars. One of the parents of those O’Rourke twins called to complain, worried we were running a heathen household. The shoelace you manhandle was hers, too, threaded through a house-key when we decided that she was old enough to carry one. She liked to swing it round and round her finger until one day it whizzed free, shattered the glass that shielded her fifth-grade school portrait. It only seems like a premonition now; back then it was just a mess to clean up.

Now you step back to study the shoelace, too young to be a crone who rolls bones. If our daughter’s ghost is here there’s no sign of it, just a pink banner fighting against its anchor. Without ceremony you untie the shoelace, run it under your nose, back and forth quickly, as I’ve seen you do before, then finally wad it up and drop it into the falls. We tilt in simultaneously, ragged wind burning our cheeks. The shoelace uncoils and seems to float for a moment, then is sucked down into the surge, made whiter by spirits, or maybe just snow.

2.

Our July trip to Niagara, it had been accidental—back then, the best things were. En Route to Toronto, we found ourselves mounting bridge after bridge, steep hills that spanned the water-pocked territory, the car gears whining in protest. You were driving and I was studying a mish-mash of maps and internet print-outs; if she hadn’t insisted, we would have kept going, driving until we had un-lost ourselves. Niagara Falls, she said. I saw that in school. She was seated in back, eating peanut butter and honey that had been slathered into folded tortillas, hating the way honey made sandwich bread soggy and crystallized. She knew we could be seduced by phrases like Isn’t there a book about that? or Crazy Horse? What did he do? and in this way often got what she wanted without ever asking directly.

That’s how we came to find ourselves in line for the Maid of Mist, sweaty and buttoned up in blue slickers, relishing the moisture that fizzed against our bare calves. Far, far above, the tourists waved to us, light carousing off their binoculars. We were crammed shoulder to shoulder on the top deck of the boat, standing unnaturally tall as we bobbed around the perimeter of the basin. You kept wiping your eyes clear of drizzle, and she, small amongst all the sturdy adults, commanded that I lift her up for an unobstructed view. It wasn’t exactly our idea of fun, and in fact felt quite like circling a forever-draining bathtub, the uneasy chug and gurgle pulling us closer to some unfathomable trauma. But once perched safely on the Canadian overlook, we enjoyed staring at the orbiting boats from above, and took time to study each squinting, miserable face through the high-resolution viewfinder. Later, in the car, she read the free pamphlet on the legendary Maid of the Mist until the creases were sodden and split, dictating out-loud how a Native American girl had willingly kamakazied over the falls in a canoe. What a kook, she determined, folding the paper closed with finality, then, unable to silence some internal purpose, laddering it open again.

When we get back to the car, I catch my reflection in the window for a moment, face red, the winter sky thick around my shoulders. It’s only just now apparent to me, how much we’ve since changed. You agree that, as the mother, people seem to feel more sorry for you; they see grief on your features in striking relief, whereas I always smiled too little, had a shuffle to my gait that made others wonder if I had enough to invest in this life. In reality we carry the weight of grief jointly, so that we’ve become, in essence, the same person, yet not quite whole. She, our daughter, her absence makes us less than half of what we once were; she is the lost limb that itches. If there were such thing as a phantom organ, that’s what she’d be, for we live as if breathing with a single lung, a few pints of blood feeding our sluggish heart.

3.

How long till the money runs out? The question burdens us both, but neither of us asks it out loud. I imagine that if we wanted, we could carry on like this forever—forever could even pass, we’d hardly know it. The backseat of the Volvo has become a casket for coffee cups and donut-shop napkins, the oddly sloped containers made specifically for french-fries and other greasy potato products, tissue wads of burger and sandwich wrappers, all of it a colorful effluvium to disguise her absence, though I can almost see where her skin once wept sweat, the smeary spot on the window where she used to press her cheek, lost in a shallow nap.

We’re parked in a rest area, leaning against the hood of the car, a cigarette moving back and forth between us. The car radio warns of a coming storm, and we have yet to find the road into Yellowstone. Not far from here, the Teton Mountains clash against the steely clouds, each jagged blue peak looking somehow carnivorous. As a child, my father had taken me to Yellowstone to go fishing, though I was clumsy with a reel and had persistent, seasonal allergies. As a result, I was often abandoned at the hotel cafe for the afternoon, a Daniel Boone coonskin cap perched on my head winningly. The waitresses were high school girls who had been shipped out by their vacationing parents. They called me “sweetie” and would feed me sundaes if I watched the register while they slipped out for a smoke. Once I’d had my fill of ice cream I would leisure my way up and down the gift-shop aisles. The whole building was made of wood and had been roughed up to look rustic. The shelves teemed with matching rustic trinkets: rubber-head tomahawks that were flagged with a few garishly dyed feathers; squares of rosin that encased life-like scorpions; the ostentatiously named “rock candy”, which wasn’t the sugar stalagmites I’d had in the past, but large, grayish jelly beans that rattled in decorative tins. How surprised I was to find the place largely unchanged twenty years later. They had re-introduced wolves to the wild, but nothing else, apparently, demanded such call to action.

The Yellowstone trip was two years ago, and I suppose she might have been ten. Yes, you say. She had just turned. You have that gift, that ability to know her exact age at each moment. Her decision to cut bangs into her hair one summer, her alternating tastes in reading material and accessories—it never seems to render her a blur of shifting height and weight for you. I took her to the pediatrician once, just a baby, and watched the nurse dangle her over the scale, setting her down carefully, like a bundle of bruiseable fruit. She wrote some numbers down on a chart and I didn’t look to see what they read. In like, I’ve lately been avoiding dreams. When startled from a dense sleep, I’m horrified to realize I’ve forgotten the color of her eyes, that the memory has somehow been thieved away from me in the dark. Were they blue? Bluish green? Your single, mindful touch—a tug on my shirt sleeve, maybe—it’s enough to shore my memories up, make them trustworthy again.

When we reach the entry point to Yellowstone Park, cars are backed up twenty deep. An official looking somebody—a ranger, perhaps, badges and embroidery lining his chest—angles a flashlight in at us, an illumination in which I’m sure we appear foggy, maybe even haunted, if not the way we want to be. Roads closed for the weekend, he says. Turn back. You hurry though a guidebook on nearby lodging—cabins by burbling streams, A-frames and ski condos, none of it right. The rushing highway lights stutter back and forth over your face, and it seems that most of our life has been leading toward a time when the most minor or major of crises take up equally unremarkable territory.

Outside Jackson Hole, we stop in front of a dismal building whose neon sign announces vacant “cabinettes,” and the manager leads us a mile down the road to a circle of what looks like garden tuff-sheds. Ours is the smallest, and inside boasts four things: a rickety bed, a dresser, and a nightstand made of crudely braided twigs, a brass hurricane lamp testing its unsteady surface. Before we’ve even removed our coats, the lamp wavers and dims out. Transformers. Should be fixed soon, the manager says, shutting the door behind him. By the time we’re in bed, it’s clear nothing worth fixing can be fixed in a prompt and practical manner, so we drowse under a mound of stiff bedding, pelted in every extra sock and sweater we can scrounge up. Our cold breath makes shapes in the air. I watch as they startle you awake three or four times, your eyes rolling around in hopes of phantoms or ectoplasm before finally surrendering to sleep, the one place where she might still meet you.

Sometime past midnight, some men on snowmobiles come to our steps bearing extra blankets, and before I can shut the door, one of them, his face muffled under a woolly cloak, forces a small thermos into my hand. Out of nothing short of obligation, I unscrew the lid and take a small, cautious sip of what turns out to be hot chocolate, the kind made from microwaved water and a packet of sandy powder. It tastes better than I remember.

4.

When I was younger I decided that, with no rhyme or reason, I was meant to fear water. Everyone I knew at the time had some eccentricity or another to define their character: the girl across the street cringed at the sound of birds taking flight, and would stay indoors when the geese started their seasonal migration. My own sister was terrified of heights, and even more afraid of falling. I used to top the playground jungle gym and monkey across the rusty beams while she sat in the gravel ten feet below, wailing and begging me to come down, not worried I would fall, but worried that when I did, she’d have to be witness to it.

At first I tried to contrive a fear of ribbons, thinking the more bizarre my phobia, the better, but this elicited nothing more than a number of puzzled responses. Soon this fear was chalked up to a fear of girls, and since that wasn’t at all what I was going for, I quickly joined the ranks of hydrophobes everywhere, those who swooned at the sight of a rowboat, and frequently spoke of Jeff Buckley and Natalie Wood as if they secretly wanted to be remembered for drowning, too. I imagined myself as a mysterious figure that meditated poolside, casually rejecting invitations to play Marco Polo, saying No, I fear the water, instead. And if a bikini-clad girl would choke in the deep end, I would be the one to swing into action. My heroism would be legendary because it was paired with the uncanny ability to face down a phobia, wrestle with it and win.

Years later our daughter was born, and she was in her own stage of falling, of taking those first, shaky steps on impossibly small legs. Back then they called it babies having babies. We were young parents is all, a fact which meant only that we maybe felt a little sorry for her, having to be young at a time when the nonsense of youth wasn’t far from our minds. Sorry you have to be a kid now, we’d say. Sorry we have to tell you what to do, and that you’ll have to put up with public school and pint-sized portions. Then I saw a television special, one with a soft-spoken host and a well known theme song, and the feature of the day was about a little girl born with a rare disability: she could feel no pain. No pain, I thought. Might not be bad. But the unfolding scenes and interviews revealed that without a sense of pain, the girl thus lacked a defining sense of fear. She would fall, break bones, and keep running. She couldn’t keep herself from touching fire and sparks, enchanted by their loveliness, and was purple-scarred about the face and neck. While other kids were discovering the joy of cutting their own hair into artful, patchy disasters, she was busy cutting her skin, and saw blood as a novelty that went along with any good afternoon playtime.

After that I covered the scalloped edge of the coffee table in a thin layer of cushy blue foam. I looked at our daughter, who was oblivious, playing with her toes. I said: I want you to feel, but just enough.

5.

At Yellowstone, the winds had reeked of underground sulfur. She had been discontent with merely pinching her nose shut, and would insistently aim both index fingers at her nostrils and press them together, as if intent on creating a airtight seal to banish all smells. In the album, each photo shows her hands meeting together in a strangely mimed mustache. We took the well traveled hiking paths, which extended like a network of flimsy boating docks over the region, noting the signs that said: “Dangerous thermal area, do not leave walkway.” When we reached the famed Morning Glory pool, we spent a good amount of time just staring into it; that deep, hypnotic eye of algae that resembled its namesake only once plucked, made wilty and pitiful. It’s so photogenic, you said remotely, snapping off a few pictures, and she and I nodded in agreement. At Old Faithful, families took great pains to avoid the essential waterworks, ducking under creased newspapers while still managing to slant their heads back and voice their appreciation in the manner of Forth of July spectators. We had eagerly joined in, practically trained to do so.

But of all things we saw, I am only certain of her love for one: the hummingbird feeder that was suspended from our campsite tree, a glassy weight surrounded by a rustle of sounds that moved to quickly to properly grasp. The red sugar water that filled the feeders reminded her of syrupy blood. Little flying vampires, she called them. Mutant Mosquitoes. I suspect that what she really wanted was to catch one, to feel it flutter maddeningly between her cupped hands, buzzing with the vibes of angry language. She was like that, a demander of unworkable feats.

The morning after the snowstorm, we give up on Yellowstone and make our way south, following a warm front, eventually stopping for lunch at a fast food restaurant in Cheyenne. It’s one of those spanking new franchises, equipped with a mammoth playland, a lego-like, cheery colored monstrosity swarming with children. A few of them chase figure-eights around us as we stand in line. They are two dark-haired siblings, a boy and girl, and their parents watch on serenely, no doubt enchanted by their offsprings’ spunk and energy, which is a kind not acquired naturally but through that mysterious current that fills any room housing more than six or so runny-nosed moppets. You eyeball the pair uneasily, and the mother misreads your expression, raises an eyebrow and declares Wait till you have your own in a way that sounds like a nudging appraisal. It happens more often than either of us care to admit, a stranger’s assumption that we have a future somewhere, one full of babies and theme parks and birthdays. But what is there to say in response? We had a daughter. All talk of future is in our past, and in that place where she is, where the season is always uncertain.

6.

In Arizona, there had been love. It was her first: brief, furious, and also her last. It was only six months ago, September, a few weeks before she’d be gone, and we were in the desert for a long Labor Day weekend, part business, part pleasure. The object of her crush was a child star look-alike, baseball-capped and tripping over his own baggy pants. The hotel where we stayed kept the mini-fridge stocked with free cans of pineapple juice, and we knew her feelings were serious when she began saving the prized cans for him, lining them up behind her breakfast plate and warning us not to touch. As for the boy, he must have seen her as a cheerful, all-to-willing servant. From the hot-tub we observed her, several times, flip-flop along the steamy poolside with a bag of microwaved popcorn in hand. He gorged it by the handful, lounging in the shade while she sat and squinted at him from an adjacent patch of sunshine. To me, she seemed frighteningly mature, quite suddenly tan and lanky, on the verge of something we weren’t expecting, but for which she was entirely gung-ho. Part of me wanted painfully to be her, maybe in part to buffer her from all the stumblings that she’d soon know: the disappointment of having a boy plaster her mouth with his own, all those orthodontics invading at once, and then the final, inevitable dumpage.

It reminds me of your own shaky attempt at first love, a memory that isn’t my own but might as well be. Years before we would meet, you were at a family reunion in Kansas, where a brigade of RVs had gathered at a popular lake. It was the finish line of the Reagan era, and the aunts and uncles were talking about the president’s past movie career while eating mayonaissey lunch salads. You and a boy around your age, 10 or 11, spent the afternoon playing an Old Maid card game that he produced from his shorts pocket in a showy flourish. He had ripped and dog-eared the Old Maid card in such a way that made it stand apart from the others, and because of this successfully avoided drawing it each time it made its unfortunate way into your grasp. Yet whenever the Old Maid was lurking in his own batch of cards, which he held before him plain as day, making no effort to disguise it amongst the slick, pristine deck, you foolishly drew it every time. He finally left you for a gang of teenagers who were racing motorboats along the shoreline. You never could tell if he got fed up because he thought you pitifully unaware of his tricks, or if he was merely disgusted with your niceness, your mundane ability to play by the rules.

You loved him because later, he helped you rescue turtles from the nearby highway. Many had already been smashed up and cracked open like melons, so that the roadside resembled an overturned fruit stand. Trying not to look at the massacre, you both corralled the live ones into a pen made from a tractor tire, but when you held out a piece of lettuce they snapped at your fingers, not a bit grateful. The boy rubbed your shoulder when you cried over one whose shell was split down the middle, his limbs still trying to crawl away from slow death. You cried because the turtle showed you, for the first time, how a human really looks: a pink, vulnerable thing. A boneless soul squeezed into a shell that it mistakes for protection.

You left Kansas smitten, the same way she left Arizona, and as souvenir she took home the boy’s promises to write. And he did: a birthday card enclosed with his school picture, both of them sent too late. She was already gone. I threw away the card but kept the picture—it’s in my pocket now, and while we’ve returned to Arizona with no real intentions in mind, I can’t help but hope that I’ll see him. Of course I know he couldn’t have lived at this hotel, but maybe he’ll show up just the same, and then I can ask him what he remembers of her, how she looked to him when she knelt down to join him in the shade as I watched from where I stand now, drunken in the glow of pool water.

I come into our suite and find that you’re asleep on the couch. Funny how the ritual of tooth-brushing and pajama-ing ourselves has long been abandoned in favor of dropping into exhausted, fierce sleep whenever and wherever the body demands it. You’ve blanketed yourself under my nylon windbreaker, feet partially pulled free of your sneakers, an arm flung over your eyes to blind out the overhead lamps.

After abandoning the Ouija board you had camped out in her room, studying stuffed animals for signs of re-arrangement, hands outstretched in hopes of greeting a cold spot. It all stayed at rest. The house issued the same bland creaks, and knocks only ever came from living knuckles. So you broke into the school to count and re-count the scratches on her locker, to examine the underside of her desk for meaningful graffiti, revelatory dollops of gum. Then there was the hospital—they still leave messages to remind us how lucky we were with those charges. After that the time seemed right and ripe to leave town.

Ghosts Across America, you joked, something you’ve been doing a lot of ever since. We both knew it wasn’t just her you referred to.

I don’t wake you, and instead slip into the bedroom, inching the door shut behind me. I bide my time, reorganize your underwear into neat piles along the carpet and shut our suitcase with an echoey thunk, then finally, not knowing why, stick my head through the open window. There’s nobody around. The scent of orange blossoms is solid and dizzying. I slip through the window easily and land in a gravel bed that skirts the parking lot, where here and there a few palm trees bend like parentheses in the breeze. I try to imagine a passage I’ve not yet taken, and find myself walking, barefoot and alone, trusting that you’ll both somehow follow.

The gas station across the street has a coke machine stocked with glass bottles, the kind I haven’t seen since I was a kid, and even then only once in awhile. My memories of her can’t seem to fix on anything but the way she looked at age nine or so, sway-backed and braided up, her eyes hugely magnified behind the glasses she’d worn since age six. We had discussed her intently: she would have my bad eyes and great height, would have a set of large, over-crowded teeth to match yours. It seems so lavish to have worried over future dentistry, to have thrown a fuss when she outgrew her shoes in one season as if out of spite, only to be where we are now, never knowing what shape she would have taken if she hadn’t dissolved into vapor. Because of this, it’s reassuring that the cold soda bottle looks just as I remember it. Even the long, shallow gouges down the glassy side feel familiar to my fingers. I hold the bottle to my sweaty head, and when I open my eyes, I see her appear in the radiance of a streetlight, looking exactly as she would as a woman.

She is only a few years younger than I am now, existing in a time-frame where you and I are impossibly old and happy. She has a navy sweatshirt cozied around her waist, jeans frayed at the ankles, and a light, knowing smirk overtakes her features for an instant, then softens out, her mouth going sleepy. It must be autumn where she is, because there are a few stray leaves in her hair. The hated glasses are gone, but she’s tall and round-shouldered, our attempts to coerce good posture from her having fallen short of the mark. Does it matter? I lower my arm, bottle in hand, and the single streetlight flickers, then goes out with a faint, clipped sound. Even in the resulting dark, I swear I still see her.



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