When I first meet my mother-in-law Nora, she is naked and skeletal, with a head-to-toe case of scabies. We don’t know yet about the scabies, but standing in the room at the nursing home, we can tell something’s wrong. Arline, my partner, hasn’t seen her mother in ten years.
An attendant brushes in past us. She had instructed us to wait in the entrance, but Arline’s friend Alma, sensing deception, led us down the front hallway and along a corridor until she found Nora’s room. The attendant waves us out; she will get Nora ready. The room holds a dresser with missing drawers and three single beds; they have dirty bedspreads and no sheets. A small print of a lily hangs near the ceiling on a wall as scarred as Nora’s legs.
I think in words, not images, which I imagine is a form of dementia rarely studied by brain scientists—it’s a disadvantage when looking at a map or a set of architectural plans, and I have long believed it also to be a disadvantage when building the big complex geography of even the most pared-down fictional world.
What if I told you some of the most enlightened women I knew in youth took to the beach and spread oil across their shining décolletage in order to receive the divine? To place themselves in the present and in the path of nature, gazing for hours at an uninterrupted horizon?
Think of Buddhist monks in Tibet sitting cross-legged and naked in the wild, practicing g tummo, the art of inner fire, drying wet sheets on their bodies, melting snow with their minds. It is a matter of radiance and belief, harnessing the power of breath.
When the drugs came, they hit all at once. It was the eighties, one in ten residents slipped into the deep of heroin addiction—bankers, university students, carpenters, socialites, miners—and Portugal fell into a panic.
After the mine fell quiet, the town slowly went to sleep. The barber changed his hours to Thursday and Friday, by request only. The bank hung a handwritten note to transfer accounts and securities by the end of the month. The last passenger bus pulled up to the curb and drove away.
The streets lie empty now, so quiet you can hear the leaves breaking from their branches. Ghosts on the baseball diamond, in the bowling alley, in the gymnasium. Long shadows across overgrown grass. The afternoon sun sinks early into the mountains.
We agonize over breakfast choices in the towering Ferry Building food market, then walk the piers eating flaky empanadas. But it’s cold and too windy, February, so we turn inland toward North Beach. Our cousin, a local, will meet us there for lunch. He’s suggested a tour of the neighborhood’s old Beat Generation haunts.
My twin sister and I are visiting San Francisco, ostensibly to see a concert but also just to see each other, since a year ago she moved away to the suburbs of Philadelphia. For the few short days we’re here, the West Coast experiences torrential rain. LA is flooding and the Bay Area is even drizzlier than usual. Becky and I are strategic—Saturday is going to be the driest day, and we want to see everything.
Blood seeps through the gauze on Salima’s foot. It’s what we notice first: the dark, rusty seepage a sharp contrast to the pastels of her pajamas and room. She’s thirteen, we learn, but the distant look in her eyes belongs to someone much older. She sits squat on the bed, chin resting on her knee. She seems mindless of her burns. Her mother and sister also survived, but three others in her family were killed when the American helicopter opened fire on their tent in Kandahar.
We are barreling north out of Salt Lake City, and David is talking about the clouds. “They don’t look like the clouds in the East,” he says. “They’re uniform, but fuzzy.” Out the window, the topaz sky shimmers over the mountains. The snowy peaks echo the color of the fuzzy western clouds, which stretch across the air like floating bedsheets.
Outside the town of Price stretched hundreds of miles of dusty sagebrush ringed by near and far cliffs of dirt and rock. Yet in the little town proper, thanks to a primitive grid of irrigation canals—mud walls buttressed by ancient Model-T wrecks—there were grassy lawns and trees, like the glorious apricot tree under which my father, my mother, my sister, and I sat that late summer Sunday afternoon with the Russian couple whose names I can no longer recall.
He calls me and says, “I got a good North Country story for ya.” Then after the story he says, “I don’t know, man. I just feel like it would be cool to write something about the people up here. They’re such fuckin’ characters.” Or he’ll say, “If we could just write something about Mom and Dad, you know. I think our upbringing was super unique.” He has also talked about writing rants about people who don’t know the fucking speed limits around here, who hold him up on the two-lane highways that wind through our mountains. Or about making a website that would provide snarky news about the North Country, with headlines like Wilburs Still Fucking Inbred and Way to Fuck It Up, APA. We’ve been having one-way conversations about his writing projects for years. Sometimes he talks about working on them together, and sometimes he talks about doing it himself. I tend not to say much.