When I can’t sleep I drive up to the ski hill and ride around with Tic in his snowcat until all the runs are groomed and my head’s raked clean, just before first light. I bring a Thermos full of hot chocolate mixed with a few shots of Rumple Minz, stale donut holes from Village Foods, and sometimes an uplifting book about how to live a better life that I always end up losing before I can give it back to my sister, Deena. Because it’s almost Christmas, the donut holes are decorated with tiny red and green sprinkles.
“These are only about a day old, huh, Janey?” Tic says. Moonlight fills the cat’s cab, illuminating his wild beard, flecked with scales of glaze and a single sugary green bit.
“Pretty much fresh,” I say.
“Yeah. Straight out of the fryer.”
We laugh about that. Our hips touch on the bench seat through his canvas coveralls and my denim jeans, but that’s as much as we allow, because we’re not bad people—I mean, we’re trying to be good people is what I mean. We were a thing in high school, before we became a part of other, more complicated things. Insomnia, for one—occasionally for me, always for Tic. Also, my marriage that’s become roadkill, and my five-year-old daughter who has type 1 spinal muscular atrophy. As for Tic: various misdemeanors, a tiny little felony, his romances with Xanax, benzos, oxies….
“Tell me what’s new,” I hungrily ask him, like I always do.
He stays alert to the contours of the hill, watching for bumps and critters and fallen tree limbs, ski poles and beer cans. “Same old shitcakes, Janey.” A long scar arcs out of his orange stocking hat, across his forehead, the history of which he’s vague about, some kind of incident with some old boys and a filet knife up on Red Lake. “Grooming the hill. Teaching my niece how to be a brick wall in front of the net. Spent a night in Reno’s shack on Winnibigosh last week. Didn’t catch shit.”
“Yeah. Pretty much.”
“What’d you have for supper last night?”
“Oh, let’s see. A chicken pot pie, two deer sticks, a sleeve of Ritz crackers with that purple wine cheese dip stuff.” His laugh is hearty and true, if not a bit repressed by the shame that haunts every addict—the ones I know, anyway. At least they have an excuse.
“How about you?” he asks.
“I can’t remember. Soup? A can of minestrone, I think?”
He laughs again without taking his eyes off the fresh crystals of snow that have fallen on the crusty hardpack, sparkling in the cat’s bright headlights. I tell him about Ophelia, though there’s never anything new. She grows a little every year, develops intellectually and emotionally, but remains essentially the same: nonverbal, translucent, savagely blue-eyed. She’s never had a bite of food or a drink of water. She wasn’t supposed to live past two. Tic is the only person I’ve ever told how much I hope to find her not breathing each morning, how I have since she was born.
The cat’s diesel engine can moan me into a smoky sleep, and I’m close until Tic comes through with a memory, as he often does before a silence carries on too long. “You remember that time you climbed that old windmill and couldn’t get down?”
“I was wasted. I didn’t fear a thing going up, but coming down was something else.”
“You remember how you got down?”
“You climbed up there and got me, right?”
“Yep. Saved your life.”
He sips his hot chocolate mix from an old plastic mug that says Life’s a Beach in bamboo letters. I feel bad about smuggling in the booze sometimes, but he says it’s not the booze that he’s hooked on, that a few drinks here and there actually keep him safe from the stuff that wants to kill him.
The cat’s engine yearns as we climb the steepest run, Grace’s Folly, our headlights searching up the hill into the plywood-sided lift shack Tic says he caught two boys jerking off in last week over a day shift, like it was some kind of fucked-up race. I sip hot chocolate from the cap of the Thermos to wash down a rising pang of envy.
Toward the top of the hill it begins to feel like we’re tipping backward in the snowcat, like the whole operation might tumble down; it’s a frigid, airy sensation that races from my fingertips into my chest, and I reach out for Tic’s thigh until we plane out on the summit, and I put my hand back in my lap. The cab’s heated, and Tic keeps it cranked just for me, but it’s way too hot now, singeing my cheeks and melting all the parts inside me that churned and seeped and grew swollen while they manufactured a baby. Sweat drools from beneath my breasts, over the sneers of flesh I never used to have. From up here we can see out on to Lake Julia, a glassy amoeba glowing silver from the powerful moon, a frozen vision that begins to cool me off, but not fast enough until I imagine scraping away at what’s burning inside me with a long icicle broken off the gutter of a shuttered lake home.
“I’m still afraid of heights,” I say, a revelation, after all these years, even to myself.
When I get back home, Brian’s in the shower. He clears a square of steam from the frosted glass door, acknowledges me with a head nod and clenched teeth, then turns his face back into the needles of water. Last week I told him I wanted a baby. He answered me by doing all the dishes by hand that night, even though we have a brand-new dishwasher. Since we’re both carriers, there’s a twenty-five percent chance that another child will be born with SMA. It’s too much of a risk, he says. Any risk for him is too much.
Before Ophelia we’d fuck in the back row of a movie theater, ride snowmobiles across open water, mess around with speed if we had a long enough weekend and nothing else going on. Now he just works for the Forest Service and takes care of our daughter, dreams up clever names for the beer he brews, plays hockey once a week, and watches fishing videos on YouTube and porn when I’m gone at night. Not weird stuff, the kind of stuff I’d be interested in if I liked porn, but just… couples, making love. Nothing shocking, nothing humiliating, painful, or violent. I’ve showed him how to clear his browsing history, but he seems to forget, or he just doesn’t care, or he wants me to know so that maybe I’ll feel guilty about not offering myself to him more, and that I’ll reach across the bed some night and ask to be gently loved, although I only want to be bent over by an almost stranger, someone a little older than me, from a higher income bracket but not too much higher, and not in a bed, but on a boat in the late afternoon on windy Lake Julia, where there’s a good chance, but not a guarantee, that some uptight, respectable person will see us from either another boat or their ugly mansion on the shore.
Ophelia’s room is its own organ, breathing and pumping, filtering, deteriorating each second. The walls are painted a pink that was once gummy but is now more like poreless skin. The room was cramped before she was born, barely fitting a rocking chair, crib, and dresser filled with clothes she’d never wear; now, with a ventilator, mechanical bed, and refrigerator of liquid nutrition, there’s really just a path from the door to her bed to a straight-back chair that doesn’t rock, because there wasn’t enough room for a rocking chair. Brian gave it back to his mother, who gave it to her other son, who’d also had a little girl right after Ophelia was born, a perfectly healthy little baby girl.
Right away in the morning Brian feeds her, cleans her, inspects her wires and tubes and ports, then does a performance check on the ventilator. All I have to do is love her, he says. Read her books and tell her about the world. Touch her. About once a month he says he can’t do it anymore, but then he keeps doing it—caring for her.
I try to. I stare sometimes for too long into her eyes without saying anything. There is no other blue in the world like her eyes, no strange bird’s head, no water at any depth in any sea, no flower’s springy flesh. From the chair I lean forward and whisper to her. “Good morning, baby.”
“Guhhh,” she responds. Not gah, but guhhh. Her speech pathologist says gah is a more articulated sound than guhhh, and would be a sign of progress, but there hasn’t been any progress lately.
“Momma went out to ride around with Tic last night. He didn’t have too many crazy stories. He didn’t find a raccoon sleeping in his bed like he did last month.”
She responds with a crackling moan I’ve come to understand as laughter. Sometimes I can really get her going. Every doctor and specialist and all the nurses say she has a wonderful sense of humor.
“The moon was out and it was almost full. Sometimes it gets so bright you don’t need a flashlight and it’s like some weird version of day. When I was little, my Grandpa would take us out on nights like that to dig for night crawlers. He said that’s when you got the big ones, when the moon’s full. Did you know the moon controls the tides? I don’t know how, but it does. Tides are only in oceans, so they don’t affect us too much here in Minnesota. Let’s see… what else do I know about the moon? We sent a team of astronauts there, and they walked around for a while… not sure why. Maybe to look for aliens.”
She laughs as I struggle to find something else to talk about. “It’s almost Christmas, baby. All around town, people have lights up on their trees and houses. They put up a big tree downtown. What do you think Santa’s bringing you?”
A guhhh this time that seems to me rather thoughtful.
“Okay. Some books? Some new paintings for your walls?” I reach out and comb her thin blonde bangs over with my fingertips. “What’s that? A unicorn? I guess we’ll see.”
I wonder often, when I look in her eyes, what blue means. It’s an endless field of blossoming sadness, a waterfall surging with fear, the sky a prison wall above everyone who cannot walk. It’s all those things. Blue are the millions of tears she’s never been able to cry. Blue are the stitches through her lips that keep her mouth from opening wide and issuing her fury.
Brian walks in wearing his office greens. He’s become a district manager, so he’s in the field a lot less. He shaves regularly now, and I can’t help but feel bad for him because his neck and chin and cheeks over the past few years have puffed him into something of a boyish clown.
“I gotta run,” he says. It’s what he says every morning before saluting us with his index finger, then decamping. When I hear the truck burn away into the morning, I pull a book from the bookcase along the wall and slide into bed with cold and soft Ophelia, read a few pages from what happens to be Madeline, then fall into a minor sleep, a state of gauzy, watery dreams that Ophelia flutters through like some kind of vagabond mermaid. In my dreams she never quite walks, but she’s never ironed to a bed either; she just floats, through time, through thoughts, through a world less figured out than ours. And we rest beside one another like that for hours in a perfect understanding—mother, daughter, big bear, little bear—consciousnesses swimming in the same black pond of primitive love.
On Wednesdays there’s no scheduled PT, no speech, no nurse checking in, so my sister has taken up the slack, always arriving promptly at noon with Subway for me and a big day of reading with Ophelia and trying to figure out an app built to communicate with those who can’t talk that I gave up on a long time ago. I’m the quitter in the family. Deena is whatever the opposite of that is—the go-getter, my dad would say, the one with ambition and drive, although she hasn’t worked a day since she got hitched to a guy who owns a couple boat dealerships, Mike Sparks, whom she worked for in accounting, and whose marriage she broke apart with purpose and precision. Some ambition. But she’s rich now, and I envy that.
She places my wrapped-up six-inch sub on a dinner plate and sets a fork next to it. A couple mugs are steaming with a fresh-brewed tea that smells like boiled asparagus and mud.
“This new tea is fabulous. And it’s full of antioxidants.” Turquoise and silver bangles jangle on her wrist as she sets the tea down next to my sandwich. Tucked into her crazy fur mukluks are olive-green cargo pants, which must be making some kind of comeback.
“So what’s up?” she asks.
I unwrap the sub. Whole wheat. Turkey. Mustard. Mayo. Spinach. “I want a baby.” I drift her a sad look. “Don’t tell anyone.”
“That’s wonderful, Janey. Really. You should. What’s Brian thinking?”
I take a bite of the sandwich and can’t decipher a single flavor. What does Brian have to do with me wanting a baby?
“He’s a no, for sure. One hundred percent a no.”
“Maybe he just needs some time.”
“No. He asks me all the time if I’m still on birth control, like checking to make sure, but we never even have sex. It’s weird. Maybe he thinks I’m screwing someone else. And he’s okay with it as long as I don’t get pregnant.” I laugh hard enough that I spit out a small piece of stuck-together bread and turkey that lands on the table between Deena and me. I pick it up and put it back in my mouth. Deena’s a little grossed out, and disturbed by the laughter, I know she is, but she keeps tapping a moonstone ring on her mug to let me know that she is in control of her composure, not me.
“I don’t know what to say. Maybe now’s not the time to have another one.” She looks out the sliding glass door at the backs of the neighbors’ houses with their vinyl siding and snow-covered lawn furniture, the black chain-link fences keeping us all somewhat contained. Her new home is on fifteen acres with two hundred feet of shoreline. No close neighbors. No black chain-link. No paycheck-to-paycheck. “You haven’t done that, have you?” she asks.
“Slept with anyone else?”
“No. Who the fuck would I sleep with?”
“Tic? I don’t know. You’re out riding around with him all night all the time. I still can’t believe Brian’s okay with that.”
“We’re just friends, Deen, Jesus. I can’t have a friend? Anyway, we did enough fucking in high school.”
The way I smile without my teeth ends that particular strain of conversation. But I can’t help pulling on the invisible strings of tension, the spiderweb of it all around us. “I feel a lecture coming on. You want to tell me how it’s about time I get my shit together, right?”
“No, Janey. It’s your life. You do it however you’d like.”
She politely sucks up some tea. I put my sandwich down and slowly chew the last bite I’m capable of. A few months ago I became a member at the Bemidji YMCA, mostly because of the pool, and it’s all I want now, right this second: the floating, the chlorine haze, the sense of being extinguished.
Deena gets up and puts her mug in the sink. “I’ll go see Ophelia, okay? I have to leave at four, though, just so you know, in case you go anywhere. I didn’t mean to piss you off. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I say. “But, yeah, I might run to the Y.” I wait until I hear the door close to grab my gym bag and make my escape. Although I’m free to leave, as far as I can tell, it always feels like an escape.
In the Y’s locker room, all manner of pale bodies drip and dry and shed wool sweaters and double layers of leggings and cram or slide, depending on the body’s relative age, into modest, anti-sexy one-piece suits. A white-haired woman I’ve seen swimming laps before takes off her suit to reveal the twin scars of a double mastectomy, the scars eyeing me and all the naked children with what feels like both envy and matronly love.
My one-piece is navy blue with white polka dots. It’s all stretched out and the top has more or less given up on keeping my boobs corralled. But it works. It swims. It covers my ass.
There’s a lane open, so I shuffle across the wet tiles as quickly as I can to secure it. The humidity feels like a tongue all over my body. Damp chemicals season the air. All the high-up windows are buttery white impressions of frost and steam. I sit down at the edge of the pool and put my feet into the water. I’m almost there. In the water to stop the burning. I don’t have a cap or goggles. I’m not here for fitness. I’m not here to break any records.
The water is about the temperature of a forgotten-about bath. On my back I do a lap, and another lap, and I may as well be in outer space, but for the occasional lifeguard blowing her whistle and the children screaming down the slides, and my own daughter at home, burdened by gravity, breathing along to my sister’s stories. I’ve tried other strokes, but being on my back is really the only thing that works, until the final lap, when I try to swim the pool’s length underwater. I’ve never made it. I know that I never will.
I pull myself out of the water and drag my new chill over to the hot tub and sauna, where I’ll heat up again, then cool off once more under an ice-cold shower. These levers and knobs of feeling and temperature are all I have control of now. On and off.
I slip into the hot tub, broadcasting a smile to two skinny teenage boys and a few women with matching short haircuts who seem to be friends. One of the boys is wearing a tall Santa hat; the other’s cheeks are fresh with acne, ruddying up even more from the wet heat. The boy with the Santa hat smiles back, then looks straight at the tops of my tits that are resting just above the plane of bubbly water. They’re strapped in well enough but, to a sixteen-year-old kid, probably deliciously exposed. I dip down until my chin rests on a thin swirl of foam, smiling at the kid once again, hoping to embarrass him, but instead of averting his eyes, he winks at me. Is this how it begins? My illicit lovechild? My corruption of a minor? My sleazy, pretty mugshot all over the internet?
Maybe it’s time to cool off already. This teenage boy is ridiculous, these thoughts are ridiculous, my thighs are ridiculous. How much harm would we cause one another naked in a bed? How afraid would he be when I got on top of him and screamed the name of our god? When I put my hand around his neck and squeezed?
Before I can dredge myself up from the hot water and head back to the locker room, to the showerheads and their ecstatic laughs of relief, the boy with the Santa hat does the unimaginable—he stands up, pulls his shorts away from his crotch, then walks along the hot tub’s bench and sits down a foot away from me. A jet streams between us.
“Do you teach at Bemidji State?”
His skin is like plastic and he doesn’t appear to have an ounce of body fat and he’s clearly not a virgin.
“Uhhh, no. No, I’m not a teacher.”
“Oh, okay. I take a class there, and you look like one of the TAs.”
“You’re in college?”
“No, high school. But we can take some AP classes there.”
He might be older than sixteen, maybe seventeen or eighteen, a senior probably, but, God, what does it matter? He’s a baby. A baby with perfect porcelain teeth.
“So you’re a pretty good student?”
“I guess. That class is a bitch, though. For real. Physics.”
“Oh, man, yeah.”
“You took physics?”
One of the short-haired women shoots me a disapproving glance. I put my arm on the cold deck, not exactly around the boy, but toward his energy, which is doing something strange to the circulation of blood from my chest down to my inner thighs. “What? No. I’ve never taken physics.”
“So what do you do?”
“Instead of physics?”
“What do you mean, what do I do?”
“Are you in school, or do you work, or what? What do you do for fun?”
“Oh.” I don’t know how to answer his questions, and they’re very disappointing, so I pick my hand up off the tile and surprise myself by plucking the Santa hat off his head, putting it on mine, then stepping out of the hot tub and walking away, my polka-dotted ass swinging goodbye. Water slides off me. What would he have said if I’d asked him for a baby? How would he have lived after I’d stolen a little piece of his eternity?
“Where were you? It’s almost four,” Deena says as she loads her iPad and tea-making stuff into her giant leather purse.
“Yeah, you said four, so I’m back before four.”
“I said four because that was, like, the latest possible time I could leave.”
“Well, you didn’t say that. And it’s not four yet, so you can still leave by four.”
“Alright, whatever. She’s watching a movie.”
I take my Santa hat off, which Deena has noticed but not commented on, and tilt my head to the side. There’s water still in my ear, filtering my sister’s harried sounds, trapping inside my head thoughts that haven’t yet formed. She leaves before anything sounds any clearer.
In the bathroom I hang my swimsuit over the shower door. The Santa hat is still in the gym bag, damp and strange-smelling. I put my nose inside it, breathe in what I hope is that boy’s entire earthly history, but there’s not much to consider. There’s a tiny hair of his that I roll between my thumb and forefinger—an eyelash, it looks like. I set it on my tongue, then get it right between my teeth, gingerly chewing at it until it’s lost somewhere in my mouth, and I start spitting into the sink, over and over until it has to be gone, although I don’t see it as I wash everything down the drain.
Ophelia’s watching 101 Dalmatians, the live-action one starring Glenn Close as Cruella de Vil. Cruella’s briefing her two little British henchmen on how things are going to go down. She bursts with that famous evil laugh I imagine would frighten most children under five, there’s a boomcrack of thunder and a slice of lightning to go along with it, but Ophelia isn’t afraid, I can tell. Even though she’s unable to express fear, still, I’d know if it was there. When you’re supposed to be dead, what is there left to be afraid of?
From the refrigerator I grab a bag of formula and set it out to bring it up to room temperature. The Dalmatians are beyond adorable. Their squeaking. Their loose skin. Maybe I just want a dog.
I hear Brian’s truck in the driveway, then the whining clack of the garage door, then the slamming of the door that goes into the garage, then something being put down on the kitchen table with the one wobbly leg, then a rummaging through the pantry for something before we eat supper, some Club crackers, probably. I have nothing planned for supper. I never do. But there’s a bag of stir-fry in the freezer that takes eight to ten minutes, and it’s pretty good, and if Brian doesn’t see me pour the frozen food clump from the bag into the skillet, he’s apt to think I boiled the noodles, chopped the vegetables, cooked the chicken, and mixed the sauce. It’s difficult to cook for two. It’s difficult to cook for one. It’s hard sometimes to do anything other than sit around and wait for another version of my life to begin.
I prep the g-tube for feeding. The bag of formula is clear, the liquid inside a smoky, milky swirl. I pour the contents into the tube, undo the clamp on the hose, and plunge another meal straight into her stomach. She closes her eyes and retreats into the colorless zone of pure function I’ll never truly know. Behind the bed hangs a painting of a pink-striped zebra with a butterfly perched on its nose. Out the window next to the painting is the smashed violet of another winter day nearly defeated. I place my hand on Ophelia’s forehead and think something that is like a prayer.
On the kitchen table Brian has arranged three tin-foil containers of food with lids marked in black Sharpie. Broasted chicken, green beans, and mashed potatoes from Lakeside Diner, his buddy Gene’s parents’ place. Neither of us particularly likes the food there, but there’s a homestyle quality to it, which I’m guessing is part of the gesture, this intimation that I have failed in certain ways as a wife. I have failed, of course. I wish I didn’t think these things.
“I got supper.” Brian’s already out of his Forest Service uniform, into his sweatpants and waffle-knit long-sleeve.
“I see that. Looks good.”
“I’ll run in and say hi to Ophelia if you want to get things ready.”
Things look pretty ready to me, but I pull a couple of plates out of the cupboard, grab some knives and forks, then sit and wait, scrolling through my phone. Already I know I won’t be able to sleep tonight. I shoot Tic a text with the emoji of a blonde woman winking, followed by the cute little snowcat. Then the steaming mug of coffee. Then the tumbler glass of amber liquid. Then a question mark. For some reason, Deena has texted me a photo of us on horseback, at a summer camp we both attended in high school. We’re both smiling. We both look unafraid.
Brian stands over the table and pulls the lid off each container of food. He sits down and notices immediately that I’ve forgotten beverages.
“I’ll get us something to drink. You want something?” he asks.
He sits down again with two glasses of water. I notice there are no serving utensils for the green beans and mashed potatoes. Brian does also, and he widens his eyes at me. “I’ll get something for the sides,” I offer.
“No, I can,” he says.
He sits down once more, exhausted, it would seem, utterly gassed. What an effort to eat takeout.
I pick out the largest piece of white meat I can find and start pulling it apart with my fork.
“How was your day?” he asks.
“It was fine,” I answer, chewing on a strand of surprisingly juicy and well-seasoned chicken.
“What’d you all do?”
“Well, it was Wednesday, so Deena came over a little before lunch. Once she got settled in with Ophelia, I went to the Y and swam.”
Brian’s instincts are to eat like a total caveperson, but he tries to be polite with his chewing and swallowing, setting his fork down after every bite and whatnot, which makes for a strange conversational cadence. “That’s good you do that. Good exercise, huh. You ever hit the treadmills or weights or anything?”
“No, I don’t swim and hit the treadmills and weights. I’m not Lindsey fricking Vonn.”
“Ha. Yeah. So are you, like, doing strokes and things in the pool, like properly swimming?”
“I mostly just do the backstroke.”
He crosses his fork and knife on his plate, then forms a steeple with his hands. “You still thinking you want to have another kid? I want to be able to talk about it if you want to.”
I pinch my chapped bottom lip. “I mean, yeah, I do want to have a baby. But it’s more like my body does. Like there’s something separate from my mind and me that wants this thing, like some kind of love goddess or woman God or something.”
“It’s hard to explain, but, yeah, I want a baby. A boy.”
“I do too.” Tears start to precipitate in his eyes. “But I don’t want to take the risk. We can’t deal with another kid that has special needs. There’s no way.”
I’m about to answer him, even reach out to touch his arm, when I slide my tongue over my front tooth, pulling down the tiny eyelash I’d eaten a couple hours ago. It didn’t wash down the sink; it was only hiding somewhere between tooth and gum. With my fingertip I remove it from my mouth, then wipe it across the top of my thigh. The Santa hat is still on the bathroom vanity. I consider getting up and hiding it, then don’t see the point.
“The odds are in our favor, you know. And no one who has a baby is guaranteed anything. Things can go wrong for anyone. Mary Beth Fitzgerald’s two-year-old has Down syndrome and he’s, like, a model for Target.”
“What does that have to do with us?” he says. “Down syndrome is easy compared to SMA. Our kid can’t walk or talk or breathe on her own, and she never will.”
“Yeah, I fucking know that.”
“We can’t talk about anything. You know that, right?”
“Maybe we just don’t listen to one another.”
My phone buzzes. A message from Tic: Let me know when you’re here.
“Maybe we just don’t love one another,” he says.
“What?” I ask, although I know what he’s said, and I know that it’s true.
“Nothing. Forget it. I’m guessing you’ll be gone tonight?”
I cut a long green bean into three pieces, but I’ve lost my appetite. “Only because I won’t be able to sleep. If I could sleep, I wouldn’t have to leave.”
“What do you two talk about up there?”
“Not much, really. Sometimes we hardly say anything at all.”
“It’s weird, you know. That you’re up there riding around all night with your ex-boyfriend. Even if he is my friend.”
“That’s it then, huh? Everything’s weird?”
“What’s your explanation?”
Brian doesn’t answer. Heavily, he spoons some mashed potatoes and green beans into the container that still has a chicken leg in it, puts the cover back on, and slips it back into the plastic sack it came in. He bites the inside of his mouth as he stares at the offering. Thanks! Thanks! Thanks! is printed on the sack in red letters. “Give this to Tic. Tell him he needs to take me ice fishing one of these days.”
Off the highway to the ski hill, there’s a frontage road with a strip mall containing an E-Cig Crib, a Little Caesar’s, a Miracle Ear testing center, and the veterinary clinic that Tic tried to hold up for drugs. Everything a pharmacy has—ketamine, tramadol, hydrocodone, phenobarbital, fentanyl—a vet clinic has too, often with more lax security and less savvy techs. Tic says he was blacked out on bars of Xanax and can’t remember a thing, certainly can’t remember commandeering a kitten, but the police report has it recorded that a kitten was beneath his arm at the time of his arrest. He figures he went in to get something prescribed for the kitten, which he thinks must have come from this guy Pascal’s alpaca farm, and when they said no, he said something like, Okay, then just give me a big bag filled with controlled substances of your choosing and I’ll take my little kitten here and get out of your hair. He acted in a very strange and threatening manner. He made like there was a gun in the pocket of the coat he was wearing, and a vet tech said during the trial that she feared for her life. I always wonder what happened to that little kitten. What happened to Tic was he got off pretty easy, just a year in the workhouse and a year of supervised release, but a felon forever.
I text Tic and let him know I’m in the parking lot. Snow drifts and creates shimmering, glowing planets at the top of every light pole, like I’m in some stormy universe of fledgling stars. The flakes keep catching little transmissions of tawny-crystal color, but it’s not actually snowing—the flakes are artificial, shot from the snow-making cannons positioned up and down the hill to keep the base deep and even and the skiers happy. Across the parking lot, I see the green cab of the snowcat prowling toward me, the grooming arms up at forty-five-degree angles, Tic inside it with his mangy beard and orange stocking cap, the beaten-down but still-smiling captain of his unlucky life. The cat’s tracks squeak out a rusty ballad.
He pulls up right next to my car. I grab the sack from the Lakeside Diner off the passenger-side floor, then reach for my gym bag on the seat, filled with its customary Thermos of spiked coffee, stale donut holes, and not a self-help book from Deena, but the Santa hat from the boy at the Y.
Tic leans across the cat’s cab and pushes the door open. The hinges shriek. “Hop in, lady,” he shouts above the purring engine.
We start with an easy green trail, Voyageur, that snakes around the entire perimeter of the property, barely a downhill slope at all. As the snow is tilled behind us into a river of corduroy, I pull out the Thermos, the donut holes, and the Santa hat. Without asking, I replace Tic’s orange cap with the Santa hat.
“Ho, ho, ho,” he sings. “I like your spirit, Janey.”
“If your beard ever goes white, you’d make a great Santa Claus.”
“Awww, I don’t know—I don’t think they let drug addicts and criminals play Santa Claus.” He takes the hat off and holds it out to me. I accept it but put it right back on his head.
“Have you ever gone to the mall to see Santa? They’re all fuck-ups.” I realize Tic could take this the wrong way, but he just looks at me and smiles the way he always smiles. He told me once that acceptance and honesty were keystones to his recovery.
I can’t say that I’ve never thought of hitting on Tic, of leaning across the cat’s hot cab and giving him a kiss. I’ve even considered the snowcat’s interior dimensions, how amenable they would be to making love—there’s plenty of room; there’s even an old green and gold North Stars blanket I occasionally unfold for my legs. From the Thermos’s cap I drink more of the boozy hot chocolate, developing a buzz far beyond my usual one. Although the cat clanks and shudders and isn’t exactly the smoothest ride, it feels as if we’re gliding across the snow, into some cold new reality, our selves frozen and shattered, leaving only a carriage of skin and desire. Tic wasn’t my first, or my second, but he was the first who didn’t hurt. I was terrified of getting pregnant, but I wanted desperately for him to come inside me, and I often begged him to do so, but he never did. Was he an addict then? It seems that kind of control would say otherwise. Would he be able to do so now, pull away from me with my nails dug into the skin of his shoulders? My teeth in his neck?
“You okay, Janey?”
I realize that the steady shake of the cat on the snow, the rattling of my seat, and the damp thoughts of sex have made me wet, made me want to feel something inside, something expanding into the purpose of all the days ahead of me.
“I’m not sure.”
“Yeah. You kind of have this peculiar look happening on your face.”
I snap out of it a bit. “That’s my new look. Unemployed, nauseated young mom.”
Tic pulls at his beard, billowing forth a mist of dry flakes. “Something bothering you? I sure got the time to listen.”
The cat’s sound becomes its own sort of consciousness—a thing that exists because I’ve accepted it into being. “Have you ever wanted something so terribly that it hurt? And maybe you were even a little afraid of this thing you wanted, but you still wanted it?”
“I’m a drug addict, lady, remember?”
“Ha. Yeah. So you know?”
“What do you do when you have those thoughts and they won’t go away?”
I’ve moved across the leather seat, closer to Tic, so close I can see stitch marks in the scar above his eye.
“I pray,” he says, looking into the night, the fake snow swarming around like summer bugs.
I clench the inside of his thigh, use it to boost my face into his. It’s an awkward kiss that goes unanswered. The air around us turns hot, and all the tortured love inside me burns away at the purple walls of my heart. Tic removes the Santa hat and puts it in the box beneath the gearshift where he keeps some greasy tools, a can of WD-40, and a bag of sunflower seeds.
“I think I know what you need, lady.”
“I doubt it,” I say, almost in tears.
“Bear with me here.”
Tic stops the cat and turns it around on the flat, wide trail, a blue tributary of Voyageur called Shaman’s Circle, then tanks up the steepest run, Grace’s Folly. At the top of the hill we sit beneath the stars, the only sound in all of space the snowcat’s pleasantly idling engine. Orion hangs in the sky, his sword a blurry clot of white.
Tic looks at me and smiles. “Put that seatbelt on, why don’t ya?” The click sounds loud enough to wake the wildlife all around us, loud enough to frighten all the rich people sleeping soundly in their beds along the shores of Lake Julia, loud enough for my daughter to hear above the hums of the machines that keep her alive, loud enough to let her know that I’m out here fumbling around in the dark, but it’s what I have to do, and I hope she understands.
Tic gasses the cat and we lurch forward down the start of Grace’s Folly, moving much faster than he ever does on a downhill. So fast there’s a violence to it, a beating I feel in my gut.
“Once I put it in neutral, you just have to go with it,” he shouts.
“What?” I ask, not exactly afraid, but not exactly complacent. Tic, grinning, pulls the stick shift out of second gear down into nothing, where it floats like the black head of a woman drowning in a black sea, and all the machinery of the world barrels us down, down, down, free-falling industriously into the night, faster and faster until the speed is enough to annihilate all that we want and cannot have, every fear, every failure, all the bloody dreams of birth. Trees alongside us smeared into a black and emerald nothing. The snow a scrim of static through the windshield. This lasts all of twenty seconds. It feels like less. It feels like a lifetime.
Jake Lancaster is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was awarded the Henfield Prize for Fiction. His short stories have appeared in Forever Magazine, heavy traffic, The Southampton Review, Sierra Nevada Review, and X-R-A-Y. He lives with his family in Minneapolis.