The closer they get to Wickersfield, the slower she wants to go. She’ll stay in the car and never get out, they can just keep driving, taking detour after detour until they are lost completely. With the roads torn up like this, Allison will not be to blame. We tried, she’ll say from a B&B somewhere in Canada, but it was just impossible to get there. Arrival means smiling, means forgetting all she has seen, and she isn’t yet ready to do that. She watches the once lovely scenery unscroll outside the passenger-side window: trees that look like they’ve been dipped in milk chocolate, cornfields trampled by dinosaurs. Sometimes half the road itself is missing, snapped off like a cracker and tossed aside, lying in the mud with the guardrail. The road narrows down to one lane marked off by orange cones and Jersey barriers, and cars have to negotiate with each other, managing a degree of civility Allison didn’t think possible without uniformed intervention. They pass through woods and meadows, farmhouses off in the distance, now miles from the interstate that brought them here. The flood has drained from the roads and fields and forests, no body of water glowers off in the distance, but clearly a big river has ripped its way through here, sweeping up boulders and gravel alike, tossing them behind like loose change. What must the cows have thought, when the water rose, when everything they knew was washed away?
“Jesus!” Bruce swerves around a jagged hole in the blacktop. “It’s like Mother Nature just up and revolted!” He doesn’t say, “and it’s about time,” but he doesn’t need to. Allison knows he’s been ready for a revolt of this sort for years. He reads a lot. He’s resigned to it.
“The mosquito situation next summer will be crazy,” he says. “All this wet. All this muck.”
“They should all be frozen to death before the summer,” Allison says. “It gets cold up here, you know.”
“Actually, they won’t,” Bruce says. “They just go into suspended development. Mosquito larvae can survive almost anything that way. And once the weather’s right, it’s going to be a real bloodfest.” He’s not gloating, not exactly; it’s just that, according to Bruce, the world has been ending for a while now, and at the moment it’s pretty hard for him to resist saying, “I told you so.” Especially after Allison had tried to convince him, as she’d been briefly convinced herself last summer, that Vermont really was a different place. A better place. Maybe they didn’t have to stay in the city where they grew up, with all that grief and grime, the deep pockets of poverty and restlessness. Maybe a better life was just a choice that they’d failed to make.
When Allison came up here that first time, more than a year ago now, the trees were bright and clean, leaves shifting and shimmering in green and silver. She hadn’t seen a single orange cone or bulldozer. It was postcard-pretty, and she couldn’t believe her sister lived here after so many years in New York. The mountains were slate purple in the distance, the valleys were rich and velvety, clear water running over stones in various shades of pink, gray, and blue, just shining in the sun. She felt her own ribcage expand with joy as she crested a hill, the landscape suddenly spread out before her. No matter that Kate herself was not happy here, that the beauty hadn’t changed her. Landscape had never had much of a place in Kate’s world, artistic or otherwise; it wasn’t capable of loving or judging her in return. Allison hadn’t had much use for it either, for that matter; it never needed anything from her, so how could she justify taking up its space?
Allison had intended to make the trip as soon as Kate moved up here, but her little sister was doing fine—better than fine, it seemed—and so there was no urgency. Kate’s husband had landed a job teaching music at a small hippie college that gave them a place to live and health insurance. Their daughter could go to the local public school without being frisked at the door, and Kate had a space for doing her artwork. They had everything now—and a view of the mountains besides.
But less than a year after they settled in, Kate called Allison, her voice distraught, familiar. “Michael is leaving,” she’d said.
“Leaving me,” she said. “Me and Grace. The bastard.”
“But you just moved there. But he just… well, I guess that doesn’t make any difference.”
“Of course it doesn’t make any difference. The heart does what the heart does, and his is out the door. I knew this would happen eventually. I don’t blame him.”
“Oh, Kate, I’m sure that’s not it. I’ll come up as soon as I can. I’ll try to get out early on Friday.”
To Allison’s mind, Michael was Kate’s bedrock, her savior. He was generous, maybe a little too indulgent of her moods, but it was too late now for him to decide what everyone else had already known—that Kate could be a real pain in the ass when she felt like it. Too bad for him. Kate needed him now, and Grace did too.
By the time Allison got there, Michael’s heart had come back; he’d just needed some time, a few days in the city, a few days alone, but he was back, singing his songs. They were like newlyweds, and Allison wanted to leave. She’d come to help her sister, not to witness lovebirds rebuilding a nest. The four of them went hiking, Grace on Michael’s shoulders, singing along. The sun shone prettily, and the sky was just so blue. Allison didn’t belong there at all. Not in Kate’s house, not in this countryside that flaunted its beauty. There was no use for her here among the trees.
As she was driving back to Philly, she spotted a few picnic tables under a canopy of trees and pulled off the road, for no other reason than that she’d left earlier than expected and wasn’t anxious to get home. She followed a well-worn path into the woods, and there was the river, sparkling and burbling over rocks. She settled onto a large, warm rock and took her shoes off, dipped her feet into the cool water and let them hang there. She could see straight through to the bottom. Then she slid off the rock to stand, but it was deeper than she’d expected. The water went right up to her waist. She let out a little yelp and drew in her breath, then just stood there in the stream. Nothing happened. Nobody was there to witness. The water smoothly cruised past, happy enough for the company, indifferent to the company, clear and cold and then not so cold. She looked around. A bird swooped down and back up again. She could see through to her feet, wavering below. Her skirt pressed against her legs and swirled behind her. She stood there for a minute, maybe two. She thought she might stay forever.
“Bruce, you have to see this place,” she said when she got home, laughing about her misstep, unpacking her things.
“Sounds like you drank the Kool-Aid,” he said. “I mean the maple syrup. Or whatever it is they give you up there.”
She threw the bag of wet clothes at him where he sat on the old plaid couch. “Seriously. We should go up. We don’t even have to visit Kate. We could just breathe in the air for a while, spend some time away from here.”
“Sure, okay—next time we get some time off,” he said, turning back to the article he was reading. He always had a stack of magazines on the coffee table that he couldn’t keep up with, but he never stopped trying. They were good magazines, thoughtful ones, which reminded him that what they saw around them every day was not the worst the world had to offer, was not the worst humans were capable of. Before his retraining in computer networks, he’d spent a few years in the Navy, mostly in submarines, oblivious to where he was sent and why, and he was still trying to understand what harm he might have done, what he hadn’t been able to see happening up on the surface. Allison tried to read alongside him, but usually she was so worn out in the evenings she just fell asleep.
The car jolts against a break in the asphalt, its newly aligned alignment taking a hit. Allison’s tired back taking a hit.
“Leave it to your sister to forget to mention that half the roads are still closed,” Bruce says. “Are we still even heading in the right direction?”
The road curves into a valley now, into wide brown stretches of land. A little river trickles alongside it, through a flattened waste that has been carved into swirls and contours of mud. Allison doesn’t know whether this is the same river she followed last summer, or if it is a new one altogether.
“It’s not even like Vermont anymore,” Allison says, as they pass a bulldozer idling by the riverbed. “It’s like they’re building a set for Vermont, and we got here too soon.”
“Or too late,” he says.
“God, I hope not.”
“Well, we knew it couldn’t possibly be all be fixed up in time for us leaf-peepers.”
Bruce has heard the term from Kate and seems pleased for a chance to use it. He doesn’t see the problem with being a tourist. We’re not from here, so we’re not from here—everyone’s not from somewhere. Allison bristles now to think of herself as a tourist, or worse, a disaster tourist. It’s bad enough to witness disaster when you’re there to help—in fact she barges in on trouble almost every day at the agency. But there she has something concrete to do. Report a home unfit for human habitation; remove a child from danger; or, more often than not, offer a list of agency phone numbers and agency pamphlets and just hope for the best. But when you’re only passing through, staring out the window, you might as well just pay a fee to be glad it’s not your own house covered in mud.
Kate had invited them to come up before the flood, back in May. At the time, nobody expected hurricane season to be of any concern that far north.
“These are the first paintings of my post-Grace period. I mean, the first since before Grace,” she corrected herself. “Or, you know what I mean.” She sounded happy, but Allison was startled by the semantics, and by her sister’s seemingly sudden success. “What are the new paintings like?” Allison wanted to know. With that long subway commute every day, and then Grace needing her at home, Kate hadn’t had any time for making things, and they all seemed to have gotten used to it that way. Her last work was made up of glued-on Victorian tintypes, old textbook cutouts, smears of paint—and that was six years ago now. “Oh, just things I see,” Kate had answered.
“Do you think they’re any good?” Allison asked Bruce after she hung up the phone.
“Nah. Paintings of straw bales,” Bruce said. He knew what she wanted to hear. “Straw bales, gleaming.”
“Red barns and white churches.” He was recalling a conversation they’d had the previous Christmas, when Kate complained so indignantly about church paintings and barn photos and “what passes for art up there.” Allison was having a hard time reconciling this new Kate. Her little sister had a daughter and now these paintings. She didn’t think you could have both, and live in a pretty place besides. She’d counted on Kate to be unhappy, to need the counsel of her capable older sister, who’d come to the rescue more than once. What was she supposed to do with a happy sister?
“Maybe we should go to the opening,” Bruce said, kissing Allison’s neck, then the edge of her anxious mouth. “You wanted to show me Vermont, so we’ll see Vermont. We’ll jump in your river.”
Allison had stood in a river and enjoyed it—did that matter? The memory had faded in favor of what was right in front of her every day. But their parents barely left home anymore and would never make it up to Vermont for the show, and God knew Kate’s New York friends would claim to be too busy. Kate needed someone there, she needed her sister, to witness her success. Allison knew she should go, but she was no good at champagne and celebration. She’d rather stay home. She had work to do.
“I can’t see Kate ever painting a pretty picture, not of a church, not of anything.”
“Maybe she’s changed,” Bruce said. “Lost her big-city blues.”
“I doubt it. Not Kate,” Allison said. “She’ll find the blues anywhere.”
“Well, one can’t help hoping,” he said, pulling her onto his lap. He reached under her sweater and began fiddling with the hooks on her bra. “See, you’ve finally made an optimist of me. All that youth. All that beauty.”
Allison couldn’t help laughing a little. Bruce may have been a couple years older than she, but he was a pessimist if ever there was one. A realist, he’d say, a post-Chernobyl realist. A Department of Human Services realist. Though he was just tech support for Allison’s team in the Children and Youth Division, he’d seen enough and heard enough from her to refer to it as the Abuse and Neglect Division, the Department of Shit Hitting the Fan.
Allison wasn’t convinced—what would she do with an optimistic husband?— but she yanked her sweater off over her head and reached for his belt buckle. “Beauty is youth, and youth beauty,” he said. “That’s all ye need to know.”
“I think that’s supposed to be ‘truth,’” she said.
The postcard that showed up a few weeks later looked like a picture of very close-up paint, revealing nothing. It reminded Allison of the canvas drop cloth she and Bruce had been dragging from room to room as they painted their house, or of a buildup of paint on an old-timey palette, like artists used to use. Kate had never used apalettebefore, but maybe she did now in her new life. It was a real postcard sent in the real mail, a stamp and everything. “She didn’t even mail the invitations for her wedding,” Allison said. “This must be serious.”
Still, she put off making plans. She’d decide closer to the time, when she had a better idea of how things would settle with Jonah, a little boy who’d just been placed in foster care and was refusing to eat.
They pass a sign for Starry Night Alpacas, and Allison studies the map in her lap. They bought it at a gas station after the first detour rendered the printout from Google Maps useless. On the crisp paper, the thin blue line is the river. But what if the river itself has moved? The town names all match up with the town signs along the road, but the map’s scale is too large, and there are so many trees and streams. Allison can’t find the beginning of the river they are passing, nor what it’s called. She can’t find the intersection they have just passed, with no signs in either direction, and the map doesn’t show which roads are closed. There are no up-to-the-minute detours, and now they are up-to-the-minute in terms of arriving in time for the reception, which begins in less than half an hour. But the map is good to hold, and she can flatten it on her lap, put her finger on the blue line and follow it as it twists northward. One of these strands is her river. Or was. She can’t imagine any of this is still accurate.
Piles of tree trunks like matchsticks lay out to dry in what probably used to be a farmer’s field, the crop sodden and useless. “How long will it take to regrow that many trees?”
“Depends. Probably thirty years. Those are big ones.”
“And these rivers, too. They look like they’ve been bulldozed.”
“I know. All those years of careful land management—and then one storm takes it all down in a day.”
“My poor river.”
“The trout won’t like it much,” Bruce says. “Poor trout.”
They pass a moose-crossing sign, which looks to Allison like something you’d buy from an L.L.Bean catalogue to spruce up a lake cabin, but Bruce says it’s true. Moose still live here, and if you encounter one with your car, you lose. Everyone loses.
“I bet they’re loving this, though. All that extra marsh, all that muck. They like to put their feet in the gloppy stuff,” Bruce says. “Whoa!”
“What, did you see one? Where?”
“No, just”—he swerves—“just another missing chunk of road.”
“But there aren’t any cones—shouldn’t there at least be cones?” The road narrows and darkens, and the woods on either side rise sharply now. It’s dense with trees, some of whose roots are exposed in what looks like a cross section of a forest floor.
“Maybe if we get out here and wait, we’ll see one.”
“Nah—they don’t really come out at this time of day. Not for another hour or two. Besides, we’re running late as it is.”
Allison pulls the postcard out again. Kate’s name in big, elegant letters; the time and date; the square of blue paint with a hint of gold and rose, a layer of this and a layer of that. “Post Blue Six, oil on canvas, 49 x 74,” it says on the back. “You know, this is actually just a picture of paint. Is that supposed to be ironic, do you think? What are these for?”
“It’s art,” Bruce says. “It’s not for anything.”
“These roads wouldn’t even be open anywhere else,” she continues, looking out the window. She can hear the resentment creeping into her voice. She knows now they shouldn’t have come. There’s no use for her here, and she has no use for yet another ruined place. Kate really should have warned them off.
“Oh, I don’t know, the terrain is pretty rough these days in Afghanistan, Lebanon…”
“They wouldn’t be open back home, is all. Where we have actual street signs, traffic lights?”
“Right. And endless speeding traffic. And humans. Endless speeding humans, making endless speeding messes.”
“Here it’s just nature that makes the messes.”
“Oh, I doubt it,” he says. “Though it’s done quite a job of it this time.”
This isn’t the valley she remembers; this isn’t the road with the picnic tables and the path to the river. Or is it? Maybe the tables got washed away altogether. And maybe her memory has distorted everything by now, improving even the curve of the mountains, the color of the sky. Bruce was right. Beauty of the kind she described to him last summer belongs only to the past; it’s an elegiac beauty. Either that or it’s fake, manufactured for tourism and profit.
They pass an old farmhouse with dormers and latticework. The windows are taped, and it tilts into the mud as if bowing, kneeling down, I submit. An orange X painted on the outside wall: condemned, nobody around. Whoever lived there might have been happy not too long ago. This is the kind of thing Allison’s used to. Buildings condemned and forbidden, crassly crossed out. At home, though, it happens only in crowded places, ugly places. Nature, on the other hand, seems to be an equal-opportunity destroyer.
When the rivers began to rise, Kate called with daily updates, then hourly. Allison wanted to race up there again, to be there when the rivers topped out and washed away the towns and farms. But it happened so fast. Kate’s town was on a rise and out of danger, but the area around Wickersfield had been hit badly. Allison scanned the news at night and watched the homemade YouTube videos. “You have enough to worry about without watching that stuff,” Bruce had said. “Come to bed.” But when she saw a blurry video of a covered bridge, torn off its bank and washed downriver, something in her stomach gave way. A new kind of sorrow rushed in, urgent and bigger than her own life. It had looked like a toy, that bridge, rocking on its foundation, then slipping away like a little houseboat, voices oh-my-God-ing in the background. A part of Allison had slipped off downstream with it, finally letting go of its hold. It was hers now too, this sorrow, this release. It belonged to her too, even though it wasn’t her river, wasn’t her flood.
“It’s awful up here, just awful,” Kate cried into the phone. “We leave New York, and now this. I thought it would be safe here.”
She was referring to the flood, and she was referring to 9/11 before it, but mostly she was referring to her show, which nobody would come to now that the roads were ruined.
“We’ll be there,” Allison said definitively. Bruce raised an eyebrow over a newAmerican Prospect, open on the kitchen table. “There will be at least two of us in the gallery for you.”
“Are you sure? Even with the flood?” Bruce said later that night, as they were lying in bed. “I just want to go up there and see it.”
“No. The ruin. The wreckage. I want to see what happened to my river.”
“You don’t see enough wreckage at work every day?” Her latest case had been a child, a two-year-old whose mother had OD’d right there in bed with her. She’d left the child with nothing but a mattress soiled with vomit, alone there for most of a day. “Mommy is sleeping,” the child had said when the police arrived, and Allison was still hearing that phrase repeat itself in her head, creeping up on her while she was walking to the bus or folding laundry. Mommy is sleeping.
“I just want to sit on the riverbank and cry.”
“You can cry right here,” he said, patting the pillow next to him. “Kate can handle this one on her own.”
“No, she needs me to come. Mom and Dad can’t make it, and now with the flood—who knows if anyone will go to the show at all? We should be there for Kate.”
“It’s going to be a mess,” Bruce said.
“I don’t mind messes. I want to go.”
“If you really want to, Al. We’ll just have to stay out of the way. We’ll buy some maple syrup, eat in a restaurant. It’s good for the economy if people go. We can at least do that.”
People were worried about Vermont, donating canned goods and sending concerned e-mails, but Allison knew their attention wouldn’t last long. It never did. It wasn’t even close to the scale of the oil spill in the Gulf, all those birds slicked and suffocating. Or Katrina, an entire city under water, corpses in the levees. There’d be no tragedy tours, like in New Orleans. Nobody used the term “ground zero.” People in their pickups would drive around with shovels and trash bags, and then everyone would forget about them.
Allison can see from the map that they’re close now. The last detour got them around the worst of the road damage, and arrival is a near inevitability. She’s even more anxious now than when they saw the first signs of damage more than an hour ago. “Do you think they’ll have wine at the reception?” she says.
“Sure. They always have wine at art openings,” Bruce says, though he’s been to only one in the years they’ve been together. Allison remembers the boxed wine in plastic cups, cubes of Swiss and cheddar cheese set up in the bank lobby. “Or maybe not,” Bruce says. “Maybe cider. Yes, they’ll probably have apple cider, a little plate of artisanal cheese, from goats.” He’s been reading up on the local-foods movement and is eager to see what it’s about. He’s a better tourist than she is.
“Well, I hope they have wine. Lots of it.”
“Don’t get carried away, baby—it’s just an art show.”
A little green sign says Wickersfield: Population 1,170, and the next few houses are painted with water lines and dates scrawled up near the secondfloor windows. Within moments, they’ve entered the town. Allison cranes her neck to read the addresses on the houses and shops, but Bruce is still watching for divots in the road, taking it a little too fast. The main street, only a block or two long, appears to be pretty much unscathed. Free meals for volunteers, says a sign in the bakery window. In the hardware store, a handwritten sign advertises generators and free coffee, open Sunday.
“It should be right up here,” she says, “the intersection of Main and Water Streets. Oh, wait—that was Water Street! We just passed it!”
Allison’s heart is racing now. She doesn’t want to get out of the car. She wants to just keep watching through the window, taking it all in without needing to respond just yet. She wants to see her little sister and Michael, to see Grace and the mysterious paintings of paint—she does. But not yet. A few more hours maybe, maybe then she’ll be ready to do what she came here for. To stand together with Kate in an art gallery. To congratulate and smile.
Bruce slowly turns around at a general store at the edge of town, where a bunch of guys are drinking Gatorade—a football team, maybe—wearing muck boots. He circles back past the bakery, the hardware store, the numbers on the shops getting higher, getting closer to their destination, 99 Main.
A logging truck loaded with trees rumbles past, and Bruce stops the car in front of a bookshop. “That’s it,” he says, pointing across the street.
Allison sees it then, a big, round opening, as tall as she herself, taller, like a hole cut into the front of a plain two-story house and revealing its inner structure, a hole cut with intention and delight rather than the fury of a flood. Environments, a banner announces: Katherine Anne Donnelly and Scott Orwell Pearson, Paintings and Photographs. As if Kate’s name should mean something, or Scott’s, for that matter. Who is Scott Orwell Pearson, and why do they both use middle names? It looks at once whimsical and impressive. A flood may have washed through here just three weeks ago, but the Wickersfield Gallery means business.
“Come on,” Bruce says. “It’s going to be all right.”
“Okay,” she says. But they have been in the car a long time, and her legs don’t want to support her weight. Another logging truck lumbers between them and the gallery on the other side of the street. When it passes, there is a clear way, and it is the only way to go now. Into that big open circle.
Bruce and Allison step up to the porch, with the light of the gallery bright and warm beyond the glass doors. And there it is, right in front of them: Post Blue Six, a large sea of blues, shifting like water beyond the glass of the door, in the light. They step in and scan the room for Kate, for Michael and Grace. There are plenty of people here, talking and milling about. It smells like paint. Or maybe mud. And there is a wooden table spread with platters of variously shaped cheeses, breads, and crackers, and a cluster of wine bottles and clear plastic cups. Bruce winks at Allison, then stuffs a couple of bills into a white wooden box with a slot and a sign: Flood Relief. Allison quickly looks to the left, to the room where the photos are hanging—she doesn’t know what they are, though they’re not covered bridges—but no Kate there either.
It is good not to have to greet and chatter all at once. There’s an intensity to the crowd; their how-are-you’s seem urgent, their hugs lingering. But they’re looking at the art, too; they’re here to look at the art and to see each other. Some of the paintings stretch from floor to ceiling, and they are of nothing at all, just color in tiny smudges and brushstrokes, accumulating. Allison can imagine her sister standing there painting each little one, in complete concentration, the way she used to when she was little, drawing those intricate people-filled beaches, castles, playgrounds, so much detail. But there are no people, no beach buckets or ball gowns, just colors shaped by hand and brush, and when you look at them hard, they seem to break out into more colors. Allison stares for another minute, maybe not even that long, and decides she wants one of these paintings more than she’s wanted anything in a long time. She wants to take Post Blue Six home, to step into it and come out the other side.
“Nice.” Bruce shrugs and moves over to the next painting—this one mostly gold. Then the front door opens, and there’s Kate, with Grace and Michael behind her. A small gray-haired woman rushes over to them. “Ah, you made it!” she says. “We were getting worried.” Kate looks sheepish and proud at once. “I’m sorry,” she says. “Our babysitter didn’t show up. That’s all. I tried calling from the road, but there was no service.”
And she sees them, Bruce and Allison. “Hey—you got here before I did!”
Her sister looks different from what Allison envisioned on the drive up. Instead of besieged and complaining, she looks taller, brighter somehow, her height exaggerated by a long black skirt and boots, a low-cut top and freckled chest, dark hair cut sharply across her forehead. She’s like someone Allison once knew but had forgotten. Kate’s embrace opens an envelope of earthy perfume, and Allison is proud to be the first in line for her affection. She is glad to see her now, glad to know her, to have always known her. Kate hugs Bruce then, and Grace nearly throws herself against her aunt, a burst of heat and bright color, blond hair from who knows where. Allison lifts Grace to her hip and kisses her cool, plump cheeks. The room is buzzing with light and voices. People are still moving together and apart, looking at pictures, but Allison and Bruce are inside of it too, now. Allison doesn’t know what they’ve said in the rush of greetings—those silly air kisses from Michael, Bruce’s awkward manly handshakes—then introductions to Carol, the gallerist, to Scott, the photographer, but it doesn’t matter. Allison belongs here too, is wanted here, it seems, even though she’s in no way required.
Carolyn Kuebler has published short fiction and criticism in various magazines, and has an essay forthcoming in The Little Magazine: A Contemporary Guide. Her geographical points of identity include Allentown, Minneapolis, Brooklyn, and Middlebury, Vermont, where she currently lives and edits New England Review.