Even in this, his new life, the first thing Owen thinks about when he opens his eyes in the morning is smoking a cigarette. The coughing fits wake him. He comes out of his dream with last night’s cigarette in the back of his throat, a thousand others coming up from his lungs with every wracking hack. He doesn’t really mind this because it drives his usual dream from his waking mind: the shrieking brakes; the breath of silence before the splashing crash; the gurgled screams; the gaping darkness of the slough, drawing him down; and the cold steel he can’t stop clutching. The coughing pulls him out of it, gets him going, and he enjoys the taste in his mouth. It makes him glad to be alive when the coughing subsides and he can light up for the first time each day.
Owen no longer gets wake-up calls on weekdays from his social worker. He hadn’t really needed them. He was always up before she called, coughing, smoking, boiling Nescafé on his hotplate. He still used to thank her each morning for waking him up to go to work. His social worker, Martha Derks, was also his life-skills coach, and Owen is proud every day that she trusts him now to live alone. He seldom misses a day at Many Hands, the sheltered workshop where he’s been employed at half minimum wage since the last time he got out of the hospital. He doesn’t even have to take his crazy pills anymore—just blood pressure meds, and he doesn’t need to be reminded like he used to. At sixty-three, Owen finally feels like he’s all the way grown up.
He makes his own breakfast now as well—no longer eating the government breakfasts at work with the folks from the group home where he used to live. Most mornings Owen eats cereal or peanut butter toast with his glass of milk. After washing his cup, glass, knife and spoon, and clearing away the paper plates and leftovers from the night before, he goes out to wait for the van and smoke another cigarette. He enjoys his cigarettes. At work he smokes whenever he can—at break and lunch, out on the lawn jobs, sorting in the yard. Even though his boss goes on about cancer and how those things are going to kill you whenever she sees him smoking, he still puffs away. I’ll be OK, Bernice, he growls softly through the smoke, grinning his left-side-only smile.
An odd thing Owen has noticed, that nobody knows—not Bernice, Martha, Dr. Atombomb, the guys at work, or the lobotomy ladies at the group home—none of them—is that when he’s doing his other job, doing his rounds out at the crash sites, Owen never smokes. He doesn’t understand why cigarettes don’t enter his mind while he’s along the highway, the ridge road, or out where the freeway starts, so he doesn’t think about it much. What Owen does think about, though—every day—is that his trailer, his independent living contract, his newfound ability to not have crazy spells and to take care of himself without the pills, all come from God because of this other job he’s made for himself.
Owen still has to keep his job at the Many Hands recycling center to pay the rent on his trailer, and make money for cigarettes and candy. He gets his half-minimum from Many Hands, Inc. and Rehab pays the rest. His trailer is small and the rent is cheap—his landlord gets money for him from the government, too. The regional center feeds them a big lunch at work and Rehab sends him food stamps in the mail, so he’s got plenty of food. He even has money left over at the end of the month. When his bank statement arrives in the mail each month, and Owen knows how much he can spend, he walks over to the dollar store for cleaning supplies, fake flowers, and other decorations for the crosses and markers he tends. He bought real flowers a few times at first, but didn’t like how quickly they wilted and drooped. Tuesdays after work, Martha gives him a ride to the Safeway and helps him shop. Sometimes after the groceries are put away, she takes him out to a restaurant. That’s the only day he doesn’t do his rounds.
On weekdays he can only do short rounds after work. He takes a city bus to the edge of town where South Main turns into freeway, then the last bus of the day back across town to his trailer. There’s been a lot a wrecks out there. He does what he can without his bucket—Can’t do any real cleaning without supplies. Some of the little monuments, the newer ones, are crowded with signs and messages, and strewn with sentimental little things people leave. He tries to keep each one as nice as it was when it was new, but after work he mostly just picks up trash. He stuffs it into a plastic bag from work and leaves it in the Safeway dumpster on the way back to the bus stop.
These days, Owen only picks up the trash within ten steps of the main marker of each shrine. He steps off the ten paces at each monument before he begins. He hadn’t made that rule for himself when he first started doing rounds on that end of town after work. There was so much trash he would forget what he was out there for and pick up everything he found. Lots of sites were getting neglected. One night he lost track and ended up so far out of town the police had to take him home. Owen learned to follow rules a long time ago, when he first lived at Napa State Hospital, but now he’s learned he can make rules for himself, and that if he follows them, he’ll be OK.
On the weekends Owen has all day to get things done. And for the first time since high school, he likes weekends better than the work week. On long summer Sundays he takes the bus to the north side of town where the highway winds around the bay. Nobody even remembers all the wrecks there’s been out there. But Owen remembers more than people know—more than his dreams make him want to forget. He is letting his memories return.
The last time Garrett Henderson visited Miranda’s cross was the day of his ex-wife’s wedding, six years ago. He left for a construction job in Montana the next day and stayed on in Billings. Since moving back to the coast to take care of his mother, he’s avoided it by taking the long way into town. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to see the marker—leave some flowers, spruce it up a bit, spend some time thinking about Miranda, maybe say a prayer if he could muster one up—he just didn’t want to be there where his daughter died. The stain on the road still shows up in his dreams—on a floor, in the sky, on someone’s dream face. He’s thankful every morning that, though he saw it that night glistening in the headlights as he ran to her screaming, the image of her crushed and torn body is only in his guarded memory, not his dreams. Now that he’s working for the county, he knows it’s ridiculous to add ten miles to his commute. He knew all along he would have to face the awful spot. Today would be the day.
He pauses at the end of the driveway Friday morning to make the final decision. He will turn left at the highway this time and drive straight into town past the accident site. His pickup sprays gravel and he settles in for the morning glide down the valley road. He’ll figure out what to do as he’s doing it. Just drive by. See how it looks. Stop over after work. Maybe this weekend he’d give it some time, refurbish it, make it a real memorial again. He’d need to focus on the marker itself, on memories of Miranda—not on the phantom darkness in the road.
At the foot of the valley, Cedar Creek emerges from the redwoods and blackberry hedges, slipping into the slough where Cedar Valley Road tees with the two-lane highway into town. Meandering with the edge of the back-bay, the highway is on a levee that holds the slough on the inland side. Where the channel turns to join the bay, the road bridges the water, and climbing through a cut in the bluff, enters the rural county seat situated on a headland above the bay.
Garrett feels the pounding of his heart as he turns left onto the highway. He remembers the white wooden cross Adina made him erect as he’d seen it last: peeling and listing, sticky with decayed flower petals and bird droppings, with a duff of compost at its base—the leavings of a decade of sporadic mourning.
At fourteen, a year before she died, Miranda had expressed a strong preference for being cremated and having her ashes scattered at sea—something adolescents often do when they realize they’re mortal. Garrett and Adina argued about this in the poison of their shock and grief. Adina wanted to go with what she thought were Miranda’s wishes. Garrett argued that it was a childish whim, but also there was something about cremating his daughter that he could not accept, but that he could not put into words. Garrett thought she was just being irrational and stubborn, but Adina had her own guilty reasons for not wanting another grave to visit too infrequently, and was too ashamed to share them.
The argument quickly turned from irrational to bitter to mean. Adina made arrangements for the cremation in a fit of spite and blame when it seemed that Garrett was going to put it off and not think about it, as he had done with so many things in their marriage. What with the accident, the coroner’s inquest, insurance forms, lawyers, and the ominous guilt he was trying to keep in check, Garrett was too beaten down to assert himself. Adina had been emotionally beaten down long before.
There was a memorial service at his mother’s church, and plans were made for scattering Miranda’s ashes. After the disaster of that day on the boat together, Garrett and Adina could never again communicate well enough to come to any decisions. It was a no-fault divorce with more than enough fault and blame to go around. They had photos and memories of their only child, but in the end, stubbornness and guilt led to there never being any other permanent marker for Miranda’s life and death—no columbarium niche, no memorial plaque at the high school, no altar in the family home, no grave and headstone. They had only the roadside shrine upon which to focus their feelings of loss. It became the location of key scenes in the breakup of their marriage.
Nearing that otherwise undistinguished stretch of two-lane, Garrett fears he won’t see the cross at all, but only the stain of blood on the asphalt—a stain that, when fresh, had been so appallingly large that it spread from the broken center line to the shoulder of the road where the cross now stood. A stain that had faded over the years as it grew in his dreams, so that now as Garrett approaches it, he imagines it somehow showing through all the rock and tar put down since Miranda died.
The few times he visited with Adina after the accident—when they were going through the charade of holding their lives together, clinging to each other out of terror and habit while they tore at each other’s hearts in desperation—he had wanted to suffer. He wanted it to be worse than it was. He thought he deserved it. When he stood at the side of the highway—not crying, not speaking with Adina, not even thinking of Miranda, but numb, anesthetized—he knew it was not enough.
Approaching the bridge, Garrett sees the flicker of white through the willows before the dreaded mirage can appear. He gasps as the simple white cross comes fully into view. It is not as he remembers it. Braking hard as he passes, sending the tailgater behind him into a honking swerve, Garrett cranes his neck to see through the rear window. It is pristine. The cross is straight and freshly painted. A bright spray of too-perfect flowers is ensconced below the crosspiece, and around its base an apron of something green that gave the little monument the look of an Easter basket. As Garrett slowly passes the place where his daughter died, he twists so far in his seat he nearly puts his truck into the slough at the foot of the bridge.
Easy does it, Owen says, stepping gingerly down onto the milk crate that is the front porch of his trailer. Gaining solid ground, he looks at his Casio. Half his life he struggled to tell time from a clock with those arrows pointing in all directions. Once he got a watch with numbers he could read, it still took him years to remember to keep it on his wrist, to remember to look at it, think of what it means—to use it. Martha could never teach him to use the buttons on the side, but now he knows how to use the numbers to help him be where he’s supposed to be to get things done.
The van’ll be here in a few minutes, so don’t wander off, Owen mutters to himself. Just enough time for a cig, he says, squatting onto the homemade bench that is the only amenity in his gravel front yard. He pulls a pack of Spirits and a disposable lighter out of his grimy jacket. Sure wish I had a porch. Owen has learned over the last few years that talking to himself is the only way to remember what he is doing. People give him a lot of funny looks around town, but I’m not one a those crazy ones, ya know! At the group home and the recycling center, half of them are bonkers with emotional disturbances and half are TMR’s—intellectually challenged, or ree-tards, as Owen has heard himself referred to all his life. When he was told to do something, he would forget unless they stayed with him and kept telling him. That was fine at work where there were college kids and social workers supervising. But Owen couldn’t be at work all the time and he used to get in trouble living with all them freaks at the group home on Denby Street. He got mad just thinking about it. Hell, some a them freaks got their own helpers tellin’ ’em every move to make—waitin’ on ’em hand and foot.
Owen had it in his mind for a long time, like a pretty picture: being by himself with everything he needed. He’d tried and failed a couple times because he couldn’t remember to do the things he needed to do. And he lost, never read, or never really understood the notes the social workers used to write for him. They were written simply enough to where he could read the words if he remembered where he put them, and he would start off repeating the instructions in his head. But then all those other things would start up—all that stuff from before, like scenes from his dreams—his friends from school, the trouble, the crash, the police—that sick feeling would come over him again and he wouldn’t have any idea where he was or what he was supposed to be doing. He would find himself wandering around town and he’d get himself in trouble because he’d need a smoke or he’d get hungry and thirsty and he’d start bothering people and before he knew it someone would call the cops and they’d rein him in and he’d spend the night in County General. That’s how he ended up back at Napa State again those couple times. But he found if he repeated things to himself and narrated what he was doing, he did fine. That was how he got his independent living contract. He proved to Miss Derks that he could stay out of trouble and always be ready when the van came to pick him up for work.
Owen doesn’t talk about his other work with Martha, or anyone, else except Dr. Applebaum, the psychiatrist from the Regional Center who calls Owen in from the sorting yard once or twice a month to ask him how he’s feeling. I wish nobody noticed me. I don’t like ’em lookin’ at me. Dr. Applebaum thinks he understands Owen’s refusal to talk about his “peculiar pursuit” with others—as if everyone around him wasn’t fully aware of it. But then a couple years ago that lady from the newspaper started following me around and put my picture in the paper. Now seems like everybody knows my business. He is well aware of the source of Owen’s guilt—after all, it was one of the psychiatrist’s early therapeutic assignments for Owen that led him to his current “obsession.” And, though Applebaum doesn’t believe he’s helped Owen any more than any of his other hopeless TMR patients, he has listened faithfully to reiterations of Owen’s stories and complaints over the years as if he was hearing each one for the first time, and he does take a certain professional pride in Owen’s success of late. Dr. Applebaum has come to truly care about Owen—something, unhappily, he can say about few of his other patients. He doesn’t try to direct Owen in any way. He just listens. I know I get pissed off, but I don’t want people bothering me about it! So, when Owen is out by the freeway, or on the highway down by the bay—picking up trash, replacing flowers, sprucing things up at someone’s roadside shrine—and he sees people slowing down to look at him as they pass by, he wishes he could do his work in secret, in the dark.
The road rises sharply above the mudflats approaching the bridge. There is no shoulder here, no place to pull over. Garrett hadn’t planned to stop until after work, but now he is so shaken by the unexpected look of the monument, he lugs his engine on the slope of the bridge, unsure of what to do. He and Adina had always parked on the uphill side of the bridge at the turnout, as Garrett had done the night Miranda died, and walked the fifty yards or so down to the cross. Who’s taking care of it? Adina moved to DC years ago. His mother is housebound. Anyone else who might have cared doesn’t live here anymore. Does the city have some kind of program? Coming nearly to a stop at the bottom of the bridge, another car blaring by, Garrett decides to stick to the plan and come back after work. Fuck! he says through clenched teeth. He downshifts, and guns it up the hill into town.
The unusual summer heat made work especially hard for Owen this week. Smashing and sorting glass and cans into fifty-five-gallon oil drums for shipping is his preferred job at Many Hands, but there is no shade in the asphalt acre of what used to be the Chevy dealership. Owen never takes his jacket off at work because it’s almost always cool on the north coast—and he doesn’t want to lose his cigarettes. By the end of the day on Friday, the heat has taken its toll and Owen is far more tired than usual. He decides he’ll hop on the Rehab van and go home early. But at the last minute, the thought of missing his rounds by the freeway causes him to fear some unknown consequence and he changes his mind. He tells himself, Do what you’re s’posed to do and go get on the damn bus! Now the bayside breeze and the familiar ease of his routine make him feel glad he did.
On Fridays, Owen walks all the way to the farthest marker before the freeway starts and works his way back. He noticed a couple of years ago that he was paying too much attention to the easy markers close to town and wasn’t getting to those near the freeway onramp. There are a few more he’d seen from the bus on field trips that are farther out along the freeway. He worried about them for a while, but the one time he tried to get out to them, walking along the shoulder of the freeway, the cars and trucks roared by so loud and close they shook him up pretty bad. He also had the frightening feeling as he saw them approach that he wouldn’t be able to stop himself from jumping into one of them. He stumbled back to town in the drainage ditch beside the freeway, clinging to the frontage fence.
But today Owen feels like God is smiling on him! The wind off the ocean has broken the heat and he’s unzipping his jacket as he sizes up the marker that is the farthest one from home. He is walking against the traffic on the northbound side, the cars and trucks decelerating in his direction as they come down from the last overpass toward the first red light of the small city.
Just as he reaches the white wooden cross, air brakes squeal and Owen looks up in panic to see an empty flatbed semitruck fly by, dragging its locked-up rear set of doubles like eight black anchors, screeching and smoking. Gaping and backing away from the edge of the road, Owen watches the fishtailing truck come to a clanking stop just short of an old VW Bug, at the end of a line of cars stopped for the light. That’s how it happens! he shouts as if the truckdriver could hear him. Everybody’s going too damn fast, he says, shaking his lowered head. Then, regrouping himself, Owen places the heel of his work-boot against the base of the cross, and begins to step off ten paces. One, two, three, he calls, loud and clear and sure, continuing to Ten! He pulls the black plastic trash bag from his jacket and polices the area around the little monument, smoothing the graveled verge with his boots as he goes, circling in a spiral to the cross.
On weekends, when he reaches a cross in this fashion and has more time, Owen does whatever maintenance seems required—a Simple Green wipe-down? New flowers? New Easter grass? Replace a broken section of fencing? Sometimes he finds a cross that needs repainting, but he doesn’t keep paint and brushes in the bucket. That has to be a special trip. He tries to keep track in his mind of which ones are in need and do some painting rounds every month or so in the summer.
But on weekday afternoons like this one, all he does is pick up the trash.
Before he leaves each site, Owen says a prayer. Nothing he would have to remember—he just says the word God with a questioning tone, and spends a moment with his hands together and his head bowed trying to think good thoughts about whoever died there. Then he says the word Amen like you’re supposed to.
Seated at his desk in the Planning Department as his lunch hour begins, Garrett clicks away the CAD blueprints he’d been working on and directs his browser to the information he gathered at break. When they placed Miranda’s memorial along the highway, it never entered their minds that it might be illegal to do so. After all, one of the CHP’s who’d been at the accident site had stayed in touch with Garrett and later helped him dig the hole and set the cross. The law was all over the map nationally, but in California what they called roadside memorials were clearly illegal. It was also clear that no one enforced the law unless the memorial became an eyesore or a hazard. He had found nothing on local internet sources about efforts to prevent that by doing maintenance.
We going to lunch? Lyn, from HR, peeks over the wall of Garrett’s cubicle. She is approaching middle age in the throes of a divorce involving two teenagers while she manages a new career. Garrett, single since his divorce, was politely obvious in making his interest in her known when they’d met six months ago. She gave him an equally polite rain check, but after a few weeks and one uncomfortable date, they agreed they both needed a good friend with potential more than the complications of romance. Since then, lunch was as close they came to another date. They settled into a supportive, work-based relationship with lots of delicious flirting.
Sorry, Garrett, but I never really thought about it, Lyn says, putting an end to her club sandwich by covering the remains with her napkin and shoving the plate away. I mean, I remember seeing those big shrines all over the place in New Mexico when Mike and I used to go to Santa Fe, but I just thought it was a Catholic thing. They’re just finishing up at The Jury Box across from the courthouse. I guess I have seen a couple of crosses out by the freeway, but I certainly never saw anybody, you know, like, maintaining them or anything. Are you sure?
Oh, yeah, that marker would have been a decayed eyesore by now. Probably would have been removed. But, no, it looked better than when we first put it up. Somebody has been taking care of it. Somebody’s gotta know something about it.
OK, well, I’ll see what I can find online.
Thanks, Lyn. I really appreciate you helping me. Email me if you find anything. I have got to finish those apartment plans and get the papers filed by the end of the day.
OK, she says. Garrett begins to thank her, but she deflects, holding up both hands. Hey, no problem! It’s not like there’s that much to do in HR anyway. Maybe I can find something in back issues of Vogue while I browse away the afternoon. They both chuckle at this old saw.
Well, anyway, I am grateful, he adds, giving her a look that says much more.
Lyn reaches for her purse, but Garrett is too fast. No, I got it today, he says and slips some cash under the check, weighting it down with his coffee cup.
Back at his desk, Garrett is closing the blueprint program for the day when his phone chirps.
Hey, it’s Lyn. Check your email. I just sent you some interesting stuff. We’ll talk at Hal’s. You’re still going, right?
Just for a few minutes. I want to go out to Miranda’s cross like I planned.
OK, she hesitates, then half states, half asks, Maybe I can go with you. I’d love to see Miranda’s memorial. And those newspaper articles are really interesting. You read them and we’ll talk.
OK, thanks, Lyn. Yeah, we’ll talk at Hal’s. Garrett is thinking more about how much he likes Lyn—her sad green eyes and dry sense of humor, the way she touches his arm with the tips of her fingers when she wants to make a point—than he is about this weird situation with Miranda’s little monument.
There are several new emails from Lyn in his inbox. The first contains two attachments to articles from the North Coast Herald. One is a frontpage news story with a headline from forty-five years ago:
LOCAL BROTHERS TO WATERY GRAVE
1 Adult, 3 Teens Suspected in Deadly Prank
The other is a human-interest story just two years old:
REHAB A SUCCESS STORY FOR AREA MEMORIALS
Differently Abled Recycler Pursues “Monumental” Hobby
The news story features a grainy photo of the bridge over the slough with cop cars and crime scene tape. It’s captioned “Police investigate suspicious crash that cost the lives of beloved local athletes, Barry and Gordon Hurst.”
The more recent, clearer picture above the human-interest article shows a haggard old man in a bucket hat, standing next to a small white cross, holding a scrub brush in one hand and a rake in the other, American Gothic style. The caption reads, “Owen Morris takes his rehabilitation to the next level to save our roadside memorials.”
Garrett has to reread both articles to put the picture together.
Owen wakes up Saturday morning hacking his way out of a bad dream—but as soon as he remembers it’s the weekend, he’s a little more eager to get going. He enjoys his cigarettes and coffee, eats his breakfast and cleans up a bit, as usual. Then, unlike on a weekday, Owen packs himself a lunch: a ready-made turkey sandwich, an apple, a plastic pack of peanut butter cookies, and a can of Fanta Orange—his favorite—all from Safeway. When his lunch is tucked away in an oversized brown paper bag, he sets it down on the counter and claps his hands together. OK, time to pack the bucket and get to it!
He goes to his tiny closet, pops the trailer-style snap latch and surveys his supplies. He’s already done this several times since last weekend. OK, I got clean rags and Simple Green. He speaks to himself in his full, phlegm-gargling voice—the better to remember what he’s doing—as he places each item in the bucket. New flowers and grass, a roll of netting, and some border fence. No paint today. Ready!
Placing his lunch bag on top, Owen takes the five-gallon bucket by the handle, opens his front door and carefully side-steps out. Easy does it, now. He and his bucket together are too wide for the opening and he took a serious tumble a couple of years ago in his weekend excitement.
The aluminum-wrapped foam door to Owen’s trailer is never locked because he lost the key so often, but it does take a good pull to latch it. Turning toward the driveway, he hops back in surprise, nearly falling off the milk crate. Angled onto the short gravel driveway, down the slight hill from the road is a light blue pickup truck. The passenger side is open. The driver leans over toward him across the seat. He is a middle-aged man with a round, sad, smiling face.
Owen Morris? he asks, his eyebrows rising.
Owen steps off the crate and walks tentatively toward the truck. Yeah, that’s me, he says. Who are you, and how come you’re here?
My name is Garrett Henderson and I thought you might need a ride. You can put your bucket in back.
Owen has learned over the years to trust strangers who seem friendly and are offering help. He doesn’t trust friendly strangers well enough to be separated from his bucket, but he likes the idea of riding in a truck. OK, thanks, he says, and climbs into the cab, pulling his bucket in after him. The brand-new truck is spacious inside. Plenty of room for his bucket on the floor in front of him.
Where do you want to go first? says Garrett as he pulls out onto the road heading toward the eastern side of town.
Well, there was a big wreck up the hill once—up the top a Laurel there? Hard to get there without a ride. Didn’t just happen now—’bout five years ago it was. Saw it in an old paper at work. I gotta go up there and see. It was a big one. Might be some work to do. Be good to get a ride, if ya don’t mind.
OK. Already headed that way.
Owen thinks things over a moment and says, How do you know me? Are you a new social worker or something? Are you friends with Miss Derks?
No, but I did talk with Doctor Applebaum for a few minutes yesterday afternoon.
Doctor Atom–buh, eh, Doctor Ap-ple-baum’s not s’posed to tell our secrets, Owen says. Dr. Atombomb, as even he has been known to call himself at times, is very clear with his clients about confidentiality.
Oh, no, says Garrett, I just wanted to ask him if it would be all right if I visited you—maybe drive you around while you do your work today. He thought it would be a good idea. For both of us. Garrett is conscious of a condescending tone in his voice. He does not know how to do what he is doing—not even really sure what that might be—but he presses on, trying to sound more casual. Yeah, so, I just read about you in the Herald.
Oh, yeah, I remember. I got my picture in the paper. Owen had been so proud when the folks at Many Hands saw him in the paper. It was the first time they’d heard about his other work. Only later did he begin to resent the notoriety, how it rekindled other things. He pauses and thinks, remembering those older newspaper stories that he doesn’t want to talk about and that he hopes this man hasn’t seen. That was a while back. How’d you see it now?
Garrett told Owen about seeing Miranda’s cross so well cared for. How he wanted to thank him, maybe help him. For the few minutes more it took to get to the top of Laurel Hill, they chatted about their respective jobs, each of them impressed, for different reasons, with the difficulty of the other’s work.
Laurel Avenue comes up the steep side of a ridge and ends at East Street, a busy neighborhood thoroughfare lined with nice homes, and businesses with names like Ridgetop Market, Ridgetop Real Estate, and Ridgetop Cemetery. Garrett parks the truck on Laurel where it levels off briefly before the intersection. As they approach the corner, Owen describes the crash. Yeah, this car full of teenagers thought they could make their car fly up at the top of the hill—like in the movies? They musta been drunk, cuz there’s nothin’ but a cee-ment wall on the other side there. When they cross East Street, Garrett sees evidence of the impact. It had cracked the concrete retaining wall, top to bottom. He scans the ugly patch material, mortared into the crevasse to hide the damage—disgusted at the poor workmanship.
There were four kids inside. Only one of ’em made it out alive. Owen feels sadness overtake him, as if someone he knew had died here. His shoulders slump and Garrett sees the emotion showing on his face. Visualizing the gore of such a horrendous scene makes Garrett feel queasy. He ushers it from his thoughts.
Owen steps abruptly off the curb and into the street to better see the yard above, searching.
Careful! Garrett shouts, a goose-bump chill rippling across his skin as he glances left and right for cars.
Owen ignores him, bending back and squinting at the top of the wall. I thought there would be some crosses or something up there on the lawn, but I guess not.
You don’t ever set them up yourself? For an instant the thought of a mural on this tragic wall flashes through Garrett’s mind—a community project in memory of these poor kids—but he forgets the idea within seconds. Months from now, that thought will resurface.
Nah, mostly not, Owen says, stepping back onto the sidewalk, remembering those few times, wondering almost aloud about that part of his new job he abandoned. That’s for families and stuff. I just fix ’em up. Keep ’em lookin’ nice.
Well, where else this morning?
I was hoping you’d take me out the ridge road. There’s some out there I haven’t seen in a while.
OK, well that’s right out East Street here. Let’s go.
For the rest of the morning, Garrett watches from his truck as Owen steps through his routine at accident sites up and down the winding road—pacing it off, bagging trash, cleaning the marker, putting Easter grass under the bird netting that holds it in place. Dr. Applebaum had warned Garrett about trying to talk with Owen about his “obsession.” But I know he’d like it if you offered him a ride. And if you stay out of his way, he won’t get. . . well. . . too excited.
Sitting in his truck, Garrett reads again through the newspaper printouts Lyn sent him the day before. He begins to think he understands Owen, and is humbled. Owen was the 18-year-old who, along with three teenagers, had caused the deaths of the Hurst brothers. The story of the trial and sentencing was on the front page of the Herald for months. It was quite a controversy in the bereaved community when the judge sentenced Owen to an indeterminant amount of time in the state hospital instead of prison. The juveniles involved all received probation. It seemed to Garrett after reading the articles that Owen had taken one for the team, and that the judge had understood that and had not wanted to see him scapegoated further. I feel so sorry for him, Lyn said last night as they watched the sunset from the slough. Garrett felt the same.
Now, Garrett can’t quite put words on the pleasant, drowsy feeling that comes over him as he watches Owen work.
Owen is grateful to be driven around to sites he seldom gets to, but he has long taken for granted the help he gets from others, and he is not effusive in his thanks. He’s mostly surprised that somebody wants to give him a ride. The hardest part of working out here on the ridge highway is walking between the sites. Sure glad that guy isn’t out here trying to help, Owen mumbles to himself, tossing the occasional nodding glare toward the truck. Gary? Is that who he said he is? His truck sure is nice. It is good to get a ride. At least he’s just in there reading or something and not staring at me the whole time.
Later, Garrett buys them a meal at Ridgetop Cafe. He has to talk Owen into this. The thought of wasting his sack lunch causes an unnamed fear in Owen. Garrett assures him that his food will keep until the next day.
Over burgers and fries, they make plans to visit the sites by the slough the next afternoon. Garrett promises to pack a lunch.
The two men sit side by side on a high, wide curb—the concrete footing on the downhill side of the bridge over the slough. This concrete, too, has been cracked by an impact and patched. Beside them, at the end of the bridge, the two white crosses commemorating the deaths of the Hurst brothers show the results of today’s work—new grass and flowers with a length of garden border encircling them, and, something new at one of Owen’s little monuments, a carefully lettered “RIP” at the center of each.
Their silhouettes contrast in the late afternoon sun: one erect and vee-shaped, its powerful construction-worker’s shoulders sloping only slightly, arms drawn in, the pate of its round head held high, shining in the angled light; the other an indistinct, rumpled lump from which short, thick arms protrude, giving it the look of a stuffed animal topped with a bucket hat. They speak intermittently, without animation, their heads never turning, as if each is speaking to the tide receding down the slough, the life-and-death scent of bay-bottom growing stronger as more mud is revealed.
I know they’re not really buried here. I know that now. Owen bows his head, remembering all those times he’d thought he was praying over real graves. The feeling comes back to him—a kind of shame he’s often felt when he learns things. Ashamed for not already knowing things as others did—for believing what is wrong and stupid. He understands the happiness of the people from his past who never knew that they were ignorant.
I knew all along they buried them two brothers somewheres else. Fished ’em out and took ’em to the graveyard. Owen had carefully revealed parts of this story while they worked together this afternoon. Finding out that Garrett had already read all about him was a relief, since it meant he didn’t really have to explain anything. But I thought people really were buried there. Under the crosses. I thought your little girl was there for a long time, you know, under the cross? I know they’re not now. I sorta figured it out. And then I asked people at work and Dr. Atombomb and they all said it was true.
Miranda’s out there, says Garrett, nodding slightly at the Pacific horizon. He feels the untruth of that and tries to imagine where else his daughter could be, but he cannot. We scattered her ashes in the ocean.
So, this is sorta like her grave. Owen turns his head to look at Miranda’s newly inscribed cross, glowing gold in the day’s last light a dozen yards down the hill where the road levels with the slough. Garrett, eyes squinting at the glare, his mind’s eye trying to more clearly see Miranda’s fading visage, simply nods.
Sorta like… he finally whispers.
How’d that wreck happen? I never saw it in the paper. This is something Owen wonders about most of his markers. In the silence that follows his question, the two crosses just beside him summon thoughts of the wreck—not an accident—that he witnessed and remembers all too well. They look out across the saltmarsh to the bay. Each man’s feelings hold his tongue. Each allows sequestered memories to surge. Each man wonders how much more to tell, how much still to hide, how much is real, how much has been eroded and reshaped by guilt, and how much truth it is even possible to share. These questions are wordless thought—the unbidden words that begin to surface are their own truth.
Garrett has decided, without realizing it, that he will tell the story of that night in full to this person he has come to love in a way that feels familiar, but that he does not understand.
Miranda was a teenager. Adina and I didn’t know what to do with a teenager. It seemed like she loved us just a few years before. We had fun together, Miranda and me. He stops to think of words to match the feelings he remembers. But at a certain point, it didn’t even seem like she liked us. I mean, she said she hated us often enough, but you know, teenagers get like that, I guess. I know we loved her, of course, but Adina and I were having our own problems, and that’s never good for kids. Especially an only child.
Owen had expected a short, simple answer, his mind already preoccupied with the events of that night so long ago—with images and feelings that still enter his dreams, that he has not been able to keep at bay this afternoon as they finished his rounds here at the slough with Miranda’s pretty little memorial, and then these twin crosses with their own memories. He is unprepared to attend to someone else’s story.
So, well, at some point during freshman year she started drinking. It was just before she died, really. She never had a chance to get over it like most kids do—like I had to do back in the day. Garrett pauses again, trying to keep his composure and not just start bawling remembering all this. He glances at Owen and admires what a good listener he is. But Owen is just staring—not following closely enough to react or form questions. He tries to listen to Garrett’s words, but the story has already gotten away from him. He is keeping his head down, trying not to look, but in the corner of his eye the two crosses beside him seem to be moving, waving their stubby arms like children demanding his attention. Images from his dreams begin to impose themselves upon his memory.
Anyway, that night she was at a party out Cedar Valley Road near my mom’s house—Adina and I lived in town back then. On the phone we could tell she was drunk. She was saying that she wanted to spend the night at Grandma’s house, but we didn’t want my mother to see her in that condition, and we didn’t really trust her. We thought she was probably scheming to spend the night with some boy. That was not going to happen. So, I drove out there to pick her up.
For Owen, trying to keep certain thoughts and visions from his mind makes him feel as if he is drunk—the way his crazy pills sometimes made him feel.
I had to search through the whole drunken party house to find her. I didn’t know any other way to bring her home. I broke in on a make-out session in a back bedroom. I mean, God! Whatever would have happened to her in that room is way better than what did happen! Why couldn’t I have been a normal, dumb dad and let her have her fucking teenage fun? he laments to the sky. As a pickup roars by behind them and up the bridge, his proud silhouette slumps, head in hands.
The sun is on the horizon, dying, and the golds and greens of the marsh have darkened in the gloaming.
Owen really wants to smoke a cigarette. When his dreams wake him up early, that’s always what he does. It helps him forget. But he’s left them at home, as usual on the weekends. He needs one now. The pictures are coming fast.
I had to drag her to the car. She was fighting me the whole way. I’d never seen her like that. I’m sure I was hurting her wrist where I had ahold of her, and she was pissed at me for embarrassing her, but what the hell was I supposed to do? Garrett stares expectantly at Owen for some kind of response, though not really expecting one, then continues. When we started home she really unloaded on me. All this shit came out about us being horrible parents and her having no freedom and being so lonely. She harangued me till we got down to the highway, and, well, when she started cussing at me—dropping F-bombs—it really went bad. I’d had a couple of drinks myself that night, and I’d about had it with her. I don’t remember what I said exactly, but I’m sure I was taking other stuff out on her while I was giving her the big lecture. I dropped a few F-bombs of my own. Fuck! he screams. The tears that Garrett had been fighting begin to fill his eyes. He resists by launching himself from their perch and striding along the narrow verge to Miranda’s shrine.
Owen is startled from his half-listening reverie by Garrett’s angry expletive and, struggling to control the pictures in his head, he nearly falls backward off the footing. He manages an elbow-roll to the end and belly-slides to the ground. He stumbles down the verge after Garrett. He doesn’t know what else to do. There are things taking shape in his words he thinks he might want to tell Garrett.
Standing over the monument to his daughter, gazing out at the darkening marsh, Garrett flings his hands down at the black bay mud as if to rid himself of his fingers. Why couldn’t I just shut the fuck up and let her vent? he shouts, turning to Owen, his face a distorted mask of dismay and disbelief. Owen, just regaining his footing, does not understand the question.
The sun has slipped below the offshore fog bank, the sky above it red. The ebbing tide has left its dank scent, but a slight sea breeze is beginning to replace it. The road is dark.
She kept saying, “You don’t know what it’s like, Dad.” And you know what? I didn’t, and I still don’t, but I didn’t have to land into her like that. Still looking for something from Owen, or from the from the cross, or the slough, from anyone, or anything, but not knowing what, Garrett finally notices Owen’s discomfort and agitation. You OK, Owen? he asks, feeling immediately selfish and ashamed—realizing as he speaks that Owen must be reexperiencing just what in fact he is.
Owen? Are you OK? Garrett reflects a second. You thinking about…he leaves this question hanging, not sure what words to use.
Owen is bug-eyed for a moment, not prepared for such a direct question. I’m OK, he says—but the truth is circling him like a pack of bullies. His words are just below the surface. They force themselves out as a series of grunts, punctuated by faint squeaks. They were bullies, those boys. I wanted them to be my friends, but they were bullies. I knew they were and I didn’t care. I wanted to have some friends. It was their idea, but I was stronger than all of ’em. I was the one who pushed the trailer frame onto the road. This is what he wants to tell this new friend, but he cannot give sound to the words. He feels the coldness in his hands. The steel. Owen wouldn’t, couldn’t, have done it alone, but he did his part and those brothers died. He knows this and has known it since that night, but he still feels at this moment like he’s going to explode if he doesn’t tell this man about it. It was too dark to see. I only heard it, is all he can croak—so low and guttural, Garrett thinks he’s clearing his throat. He begins to paw at the chest of his jacket, search deep in the pockets of his pants. He thinks of his crazy pills, Miss Derks, and Dr. Atombomb. He can see and hear that Garrett is upset. He knows it’s about his dead little girl. He wants to help, but he doesn’t know what to do except keep pretending he is listening. He catches up a couple of breaths, pushes aside his own silent narrative and collects a question into words he hopes will help him forget his memories for now. OK, but, eh, I don’t really get how what was going on with your little girl caused the crash.
Garrett pivots on the gravel and looks down the highway. There is still a cerulean glow to the sky that reveals the broken white center line to the point where it disappears into the blackness of the willows. There was no crash, he says, staring blankly at the middle of the road. Not really. His resignation is so complete his knees begin to wobble. She got run over by a logging truck.
Oh, was all that Owen could muster, his mind’s hands gripping the dream trailer hitch, pushing. He hears their laughter. And his.
Garrett firms himself up a little and continues—forgetting the concern he’d just expressed for Owen. We were just coming to the bridge when she opened the door. She was screaming, “I’m gonna jump if you don’t stop this fucking car!” The wind—there was this big sucking sound—I could see the edge of the road going by—she was pushing on the open door, leaning out, screaming at me to stop.
The vividness of this description broke through Owen’s own endless loop of shame. He did not understand how anyone could be so angry at their own father—Owen had never known a father of his own—or how a father could be so angry at his own daughter—but he understood cars and the danger of the situation.
So, I stopped, Garrett says in a high, questioning voice, sounding and feeling somehow still astounded at himself. She rolled out and slammed the door. I don’t know what I was thinking. Another car almost rear-ended me right there, so I figured I’d just park the car on the other side of the bridge and walk back for her. I never thought about how drunk she was. I never thought… Garrett feels a catch in his throat and crumples beside his daughter’s shrine, sobbing.
For Owen, the sight of a grown man weeping is more affecting than words. He steps forward, drops to his knees, and puts his hands on Garrett’s trembling shoulders. It’s OK, Gary, he says. She’s in heaven now.
Down the highway, the tunnel of willows begins to glow from within as headlights approach. Twin halogen spotlights break around the curve and burst onto the roadside tableau of kneeling men. Garrett averts his eyes down toward the road and in that instant the black-red stain opens before him, darker than the asphalt. He turns to the brightening cross, clutching Owen’s wrists, but the pool of blood from his dreams persists like the afterimage of an eclipse. He wants to reach out to the cross, to Miranda. Only the firm hands on his shoulders seem real.
Steadying himself on Garrett’s shoulders, Owen squints into the brightening high beams that doppler forward with the scream of the engine. The light and noise seem to be aimed directly at them. As the machine shoots past on the road, not six feet away, the driver lays on the horn. Startled, they leap as one and, as they step reflexively away from the road, Garrett trips on the netting, bowling into Owen. They tumble into the mud at the edge of the slough, unhurt, but on their hands and knees, face to face in the stinking silt.
It dawns on both of them at once that they are stuck. Each extremity threatens to sink deeper in the sludge as it pushes to lift its opposite.
Owen isn’t sure what has happened. There is a pain in his elbow and he can’t move without getting deeper in the mud. Help me, Gary, he pleads, panic beginning to set in. Not being able to move his arms and legs reminds him of being “sheeted”—a common restraint technique he has experienced too often.
It’s OK, Owen. I got this, Garrett says before he has devised a plan. He completely understands what has just happened and feels stupid and clumsy. He thinks, This is just what I deserve, but he says, Sorry for knocking you over, Owen.
Owen’s panic deepens. He begins to push and pull, increasing the grip of the mud. His mind is a glaring flash of fears remembered, without words, in a hospital bed, the sheets and blankets tucked firm against his struggle, sweat pouring from his face. His breath is quick and shallow as he works himself deeper into the mud.
Garrett notices that Owen is panicking. Owen! Hey! Listen to me. This stops Owen’s squirming. Without knowing beforehand exactly what his plan is, Garrett says, Lean your forehead toward me. Owen nods slightly and complies. Garrett then slowly lowers his own forehead until what years ago was his hairline is pressed against the front of Owen’s bucket hat. OK, press your head against mine. Push! Now lift both your arms at the same time.
Someone watching from the road at that moment would have seen two men rise from the mud like dancers in the dark—pressing together first their heads and then their emerging hands and arms, climbing one another like a Jacob’s ladder until they are separate statues of mud, hands upon each other’s shoulders.
Owen is so relieved to be able to move his arms again, he nearly comes to tears. Garrett is still thinking of their exit strategy. He measures with his eye the distance to the gravel verge and tells Owen, OK, sounds silly, but I think we just gotta sorta fall over toward the road.
That same observer would have seen the artwork topple over onto its side in slow motion and come alive, wriggling up the shoulder of the road, then softly shaking.
Owen has always had a hard time understanding what everyone was laughing about. He seldom thinks much is funny. But when he and Garrett are in the middle of helping each other skootch and worm their slimy bodies onto the gravel, there is something about it that makes him laugh. Garrett hears the glee rising from Owen and feels his own belly laugh coming on, but he manages to hold it until he is sure they have worked their way out of the jam. Even as the sulfurous stench surrounds him, thinking about the mud as jam intensifies the hilarity, and his laughter bursts forth.
For several moments they quiver, mud-covered, in breathless joy on the gravel next to the clean white cross. Owen isn’t sure what is happening, but as his laughter recedes it is replaced by another feeling for which he does not have a word. What is the word for the way you feel when you find a friend? Just happy, I guess.
What’s that, Owen? says Garrett as his breath returns to him.
I’m just happy, I guess.
Me too, Owen.
Garret remembers something he was going to say, but remains silent, thinking of things he’s going to do.
His new nickname will be Gary.