Smoke and Mirrors
They had parked the camper in one of the spots by the river – paid their $5.00 at the entrance, into the hand of a cheery ranger in khaki who stood in a kiosk behind a wooden counter – and now it was evening, of a hot June day. The baby was restive and cried, but Amy gave her some apple juice in her bottle and sat her down on a blanket under a pine. The heat brought out the fragrance of the pine-needles strongly, and all the forest seemed to breathe a specially-medicated breath at them, as if inviting them into its healing arms. Amy felt that nobody could be unhappy here – the smell was wonderful, like childhood, like friendship, like magic – and she wanted just to sit down with baby Cindy and lean her own back against the rough bark of the tree.
But there was supper to get; at least Clem had started the fire in the grate; at least that. And then he’d gone off into the woods to smoke, down near the stream but a ways away from them – Amy could just see the red plaid of his shirtsleeve, near a curve in the creek. Even from here she could feel that he was disconsolate – as usual these days.
And so, keeping one eye on the little girl, Amy set about assembling the meal: hot dogs laid on the grill, buns ready to place cut-side-down beside them just before they were done. Supermarket potato salad, the jar of dill pickles, the carton of red fruit punch.
As they were finishing the meal – Amy patiently trying to feed a little more mashed-up potato salad to the child, Clem muttering that he was going for another cigarette – Amy smelt something more than the smoke from the barbecue, or the light and yet musky, acrid odor of Clem’s body as he raised his arms to swing himself up off the picnic bench and turn away. The hot breath of the pines.
And she heard it, too – a stealthy crackling, as if an army of homeless men were advancing one by one, with designs on the trailer. She looked up sharply.
She stood, knees bent in between the bench and table; extricated herself, stood then behind the bench and looked around. Her ears seemed to swivel searchingly, like a rabbit’s or a deer’s. She knew that Clem had the keys to the camper – he always carried them – and she could not see him any more. Where was he?
And how far was it to the main road? Ten minutes by car? To the kiosk where the Ranger was? Closer, of course…. She bent to pick up the little girl – heavy now on her hip – at eighteen months she was getting almost too big to pick up.
“CLEM? CLEM?” she shouted, as loudly as she could. No answer. “CLEM?” Only the distant crackles answered her, and a hot pressure in the air.
Amy moved as fast as she could with the burden of the child. She was going to go away from the fire, back towards the Ranger’s hut. Clem could look after himself, but she had a child to protect. When she reached the hut, the Ranger was gone. She looked around but could not see his truck. The noise was louder – like a crowd, talking amongst themselves out of sight.
Where could they go? She knew there was another road, on the other side of the park, beyond a low range of hills – she could picture it from the map – but it was too far to run to – and the fire seemed to be coming from that direction. Where was Clem? They needed to get out of here, now!
He had the keys! She called his name again, loudly; competing with the voices of the crowd. She was moving back towards it, the danger; cracking through the dry needles underfoot, scuffing on sandy soil. Hunting for her husband. Just a little way.
“CLEM? CLEM?” Her voice caught in her throat – smoke making it husky. The air was thicker now, like the smogs of her childhood, but smelling of pine. The evening had grown hot – so much hotter.
She was looking up and down the stream now. No sight of him. They hadn’t much longer – “CLEM? CLEM?”
What was that, over there between the trees? His red shirt? Or was it the hot mouth of the fire, reared up on hind legs? There had been a sign, at the entrance to the park – Red Alert – Fire danger – No Smoking. But would Clem listen?
She had had to give up on his listening, some time ago.
“Daddy?” said Cindy, sticking out her little pointy finger. “Daddy?” Her tiny teeth showed, her eyes were rimmed with red. Little bubbles of saliva at the corners of her lips.
Birds were flying out of the woods, some falling onto the dry needles. A deer came bounding towards them, arcing over the stream in a huge leap, swerving at the last minute in another. Amy turned away from it, shielding Cindy uselessly with her body. But the deer was gone, bounding high, away into the woods towards the road they’d come in on, far off…too far.
Amy looked at the stream, searching for a deep pool – the deeper the better. If she could just find such a pool, cold and clear, it might be all right. Because no dwelling would be safe in fire, no roof would help. They needed either distance; or cold and wet.
There – just at that far bend, in the shadow of overhanging rocks. Grasping Cindy more firmly to her, Amy waded into the wide stream.
Amy and Cindy strode side by side up Commercial Street in Vancouver, looking about them with pleasure. An organic grocers’ spilled out onto the pavement in a profusion of colourful vegetables and fruits. A boutique offered locally handmade knitwear, including, Amy noticed, a calf-length sky-blue open vest she immediately coveted; along with big pouffy hats with tassels, and leg-warmers striped in as many colours as the fruits and veggies they’d just passed.
They’d walked for miles already today, checking out the city where Cindy was to go to school. They were staying in a B&B near the water – such calm water here, sheltered by islands; different than the California coast – and had already explored Cindy’s campus – three buildings on a courtyard; housing a progressive culinary institute where Cindy was to learn the science of what she most wanted to do: become a healthy pastry chef! Raw cakes made with berries and cashews and coconut – pumpkin foam – edible flowers – agave-sweetened macaroons – wedding cakes for the health-conscious bride. She was beaming, was Cindy – out of her somewhat-difficult teens, well into assuming the creative mantel of her adulthood. She’d been making healthy goodies since she was twelve, and now she would go pro – this tall, slender, full-lipped, lovely young woman with the cyclist’s wiriness (she also raced) and her hair in a ballerina knot.
Amy felt privileged to be allowed to accompany her – for the young are not always so forgiving, so broad-minded.
Amy herself had weathered well – her curly honey hair and slender build feminized the jeans and boots she favoured. Today she’d added a ladylike cardigan and a pair of amber earrings.
As they crossed a street, Amy’s glance fell on a large placard outside what appeared to be a school building. There was a photo on it, of a beaming man in his forties, with red-gold hair and dark brows and very white and even teeth. (You could see lots of these teeth; they were good all the way to the back.) His shoulders in a casual shirt were broad, and he seemed to radiate good will to all. Lettering beneath the picture announced:
WORLD-RENOWNED MOTIVATIONAL SPEAKER
“YOUR LIFE IS ABOUT TO TAKE OFF LIKE A ROCKET!”
Gareth Twist is promising to light a fire under your…ummm…you know what, to take you out of old habits and doldrums and get your life into a brand new groove!
TODAY AT 3:00
Amy was stuck in mid-stride. She could not move! Firmly then she pulled her feet together and planted them on the sidewalk. Still she stared at the poster. Her mouth had opened a little, and she brushed a curl from the side of her face. And stared some more.
“What is it, Mom?” demanded Cindy. “Why are you staring at that thing like you just saw a UFO?”
“That,” announced Amy with finality, “Is your father. Clem. I don’t know where he got that weird name – but that’s him. I thought he’d died in the fire – like we almost died. It was so hot, even bones were mostly burnt. No trace of him was ever found. You know this – I’ve told you before. Clem Bob Aldritch – your dad. His obituary was in the paper – that’s how I met the editor, that’s how I got that job, later – the drawing-portraits-of-each-person-in-town one. That’s how. And here he is – it’s him, it’s him, it couldn’t be anybody else. That scar in his right eyebrow – the bend in his nose – that’s him.” She was trembling. “That’s god-damn him!”
Cindy gawped at her. “What are you gonna do?”
“It’s nearly three. We’re going in.” And Amy took her daughter’s hand and pulled her up the walkway towards the school.
Gareth Twist was describing his moment of revelation.
“My wife had left me…I might never see my child again. I was depressed, I went for a walk in the woods. It wasn’t a wide belt of woods, there were two highways not very far away, but it was one of those hot days they have down south – you could hear the toads go boom as they burst in the heat – really. The trees were nearly too hot to touch. It hadn’t rained in months.
“I was at my lowest point ever…and as I walked through the woods hoping for a little peace to touch my soul, I smelled smoke… I didn’t know if it was behind me or in front of me. Some idiot must have tossed a lit cigarette out the window of a car…
“I started to run – the heat increased. In a minute I could see flames – I veered off to the left, crashing through the brush on uneven terrain. My lungs were burning -”
He was not a tall man, but his arms seemed to grow longer as he held them out to the sides. His hair shone in the stage lights as if, Amy thought, he’d had it glossed. She thought dispassionately that he must have been to the dentist too – his teeth had been slightly crooked, not unattractively; but with a smoker’s yellow tinge. That was gone. But it was Clem…oh, it was Clem.
But where had he got this passion? This was new. Yes, he’d been excited about her in the beginning, but when the newness wore off so did his enthusiasm. At least that’s how, looking back, it seemed to her. Classic story, of course. But he’d stopped talking…so how could she know?
Gareth Twist wore a very clean, ironed, blue-and-green plaid flannel shirt and pressed jeans, and stout new hiking boots. He had a little ponytail. Amy had read in The New Yorker – her day job as a medical receptionist in an upscale practice had introduced her to this magazine and, over the years, many other marvels – that this was in New York the new urban chic – outdoor clothes, suitable for hiking the Appalachian or Pacific trail. Whether you did that hiking, or just hiked to the subway or nearest taxi was up to you. Gareth Twist looked as if he had not even made his own coffee in those clothes.
His arms were spread wide again, welcoming everyone into his world. Light gleamed on his teeth, his hair, the brass studs on his boots.
His expression grew humble, rapt.
“I found myself crashing out of some stickery brush and next thing I knew, I was falling….falling through the air! And then I splashed – right into a deep pool of water! I’d fallen off a bluff right into the river, where it meandered back on itself – way downstream from where I’d crossed it earlier. It was in a real steep ravine here. I fell under the surface, came back up spluttering…and I saw, everybody, I saw that fire pass right over my head. It jumped over the river like it was being welcomed by loving relations! And then y’know what? It was gone.
“The air had been hot as hell but it was cool at the bottom of the pool, just took a minute of holding my breath down there and I was safe. I came up again, looked at all the devastation – still coughing, but on me, nothing was even singed. It had been that quick. It was like the air was all gone though and I was gasping for breath.
“By and by things settled. And as I stood there, feet on the bottom of the pool, head above water, a peculiar thing happened.”
Cindy was hissing. “Mom? Mom? Is it? Is it him? Dad? Really?”
“Wait a minute,” Amy hissed back – but she had to bring her jaw back up to say anything at all – she was so astonished that it had fallen literally to her collarbone, or so it seemed. She needed to hear the rest. “Just a minute! Shhh!” she whispered fiercely.
Gareth Twist was speaking. “And that was…nothing. Nothing happened. The fire had gone, everything was silent. Even the creek stood still. It was like…a balloon had popped, and it had woken me up.
“There I was, soggy as anything, but alive; and there was nothing there. It was like the trees, the rocks, even the hot sunlight on my face – was made of Nothing; and all this Nothing was rushing into me, and it got into my heart and broke it open. And I was crying and laughing – it was like I was the sunlight, the stream. And there was this great big pressure all around me – like something more was getting ready to happen.
“And then I saw her, heard her voice – my grandmother, my father’s mother: Ettawanda…Twist. Her old voice, still strong, proclaiming, ‘Empty hands are the devil’s workshop!’
“She raised me, see, and she believed in Tough Love. So half the time she was telling me I was the stupidest kid that ever lived, and half the time she was saying ‘You can do it, you can get anything you want. You can be President. You just gotta try, do it, don’t give up. Just keep goin’. God made us different than the animals for one reason, that’s so we can show we’re better than them. Stay clean, shave daily, and be busy with worthwhile things. Nothingness‘ – she would have said – ‘is nonsense – useless – dangerous – you’ve got to fill it up with good things, do some good while you’re here in the world!’
“That’s my old grandma, in her flowered dress, leaning over the kitchen table where she fed me every day with food and love and….words for Right Living.
“So then I had my bright idea.
“Suppose I vowed, right from the start, that I’d support three charities – always three – there’s a magic number – at the same time as I was pulling my sorry self up with my own bootstraps? I’m gonna change my life here, that’s clear; and the way I keep myself motivated is that I know I’m responsible to those charities too. They’re depending on me, waiting for my monthly donation, straight out of the bank. ‘Cause if you think you have too much responsibility, folks, or too much work – the cure is to take on a little more. It gives you more energy. So already it wasn’t just one I was gonna work for – sorry bum that I was – it was more people, maybe more worthwhile than I was. Sick kids. Poor little pandas. That sort of thing.
“And I did that. And that’s what I’m telling you today – choose your charities! Open your pockets! If you don’t know which ones are genuine, I’ve got a list, see me after! When you give, the world gives to you.
“I started buying real estate – after I’d worked for a few years, at various jobs – and things went on from there.” He stamped his feet apart now, his chin lifted, remembering – his arms shifted fractionally back towards his body. “But I always knew, from that great moment, that the way I was really gonna give back would be to tell people all about it, and help them realize they too have enough energy to take care of themselves and more deserving folks.
“And to stay au courant so to speak; to keep things moving, I change those charities from time to time – like you’d change the living room furniture. Right now it’s the Policemen’s Retirement Fund, The Old Lawyers’ Home, and the Journalists Felled in Action Memorial Fund.
“And of course, I wouldn’t have made this awesome step up in my life…or, well, I could have, thanks to Granny Ettawanda, bless her soul, wherever she may be – but on this plane, these days, I owe so very much to my beautiful wife, Sheree. Sheree, want to come on up, honey?”
Amy, back in the third row to the end, reached over and took Cindy’s hand. It was a cold hand, sweaty in the palm. She heard Cindy gulp, softly. “Mom? Mom?” said Cindy.
“Shhh…wait,” Amy said again.
The line was long, and the more time they spent in it the more electric became Amy’s unease. She felt like a war-tank armed with projectiles, lumbering slowly, slowly forward. Gareth Twist had a word for everybody, a handshake, a hug. He peered earnestly into people’s eyes.
Finally Amy stood before him, Cindy at her side. Amy looked right into the man’s face; to see if he would know. She said nothing, nor did she touch him – she just stood there. There they were, his eyes, those windows to his soul – medium-size, hazel, with pale lashes. The brows dark as if by artifice, though they at least were the real deal. His hair had been glossed.
The pupils widened suddenly, then narrowed. He looked away to the left and down. Then he glanced up as if involuntarily and his gaze moved over to Cindy. The pupils widened again; and the sockets seemed to droop. “Yes?” he said.
“Clem Bob Aldritch,” Amy said. “You idiot. You lying sonofabitch.”
Later the two women sat in a cozy juice bar with Afghani rugs on the walls, low velvet divans, and quiet sitar music. They had carrot juice first, then rice and dal and salad, and afterwards, tea. And they talked.
“Mom,” said Cindy, leaning back on the couch away from the wooden table, stretching her long arms up over her head, then putting her hands back in her lap and leaning forward again – “Dad said his whole success had to do with filling up emptiness with good works. Right? But you know how in Yoga class, when we relax at the end, and we’re kind of floating…the teacher doesn’t say anything like that. She just…affirms the emptiness. Supports it. Like nothing needs to get in it. Like…whatever comes and goes is okay. Like…life is like that. Mom – is Dad afraid of something?”
“I’d say so,” replied Amy.
“That was amazing, Mom – when you screamed out for everybody to hear? ‘THIS IS MY GODDAMNED HUSBAND! HE PRETENDED HE’D DIED!!!”
Amy nodded ruefully. Her biceps felt bruised from the big hands that had appeared from behind and grabbed them. The wall – the actual wall she’d seen come down over Clem Bob’s face – had given her a sense of cold in her middle – like she was a bullied child, an outsider to the feast.
“Sorry,” he’d said, “I just don’t know anybody by that name.” There was another expression in there somewhere too – or maybe two expressions, one right after the other – a kind of breathing alternation, very fast, like wind ruffling Venetian blinds: self-pity. Triumph. Self-pity. Triumph.
…And his wife, who looked, thought Amy in the tiny glance she’d given her, like someone in a catalogue of middle-aged business clothes worn by improbably-young models – stood by his side with large, liquid eyes, smiling, unmoving except to lean in towards her husband a bit. Like a politician’s wife.
Amy had begun to plot furiously in her mind, but as they sat in the cafe she realized that for now, Cindy needed her more than she herself needed to figure out any plan of action. She reached across the table and took her daughter’s hand.
Amy was meditating. She did this in her own way; lying down, on a yoga mat with a shawl over it, in the screened back porch, so that a mild breeze occasionally touched her face. She could smell the bowl of fruit on the table across the room – it was a large porch – and she could, as it were, feel the view, too – the mountains back there, the deep arroyo before them. Traffic on the street out front was light, always, and she barely heard it. The houses were big and far apart.
Amy had the sense that there was a floor within her body, made of boards; and when she had rested on it a while, not doing anything, just letting it be what it was and she on it as she was; suddenly she would fall beneath that floor, and find herself in another place. If she observed without ambition or disturbance this new place – populated, usually, by characters from her childhood – and allowed herself to feel whatever she felt, however uncomfortable, and allowed her body to shake off things it felt finished with, if it so chose, without her interfering – sometimes gasping involuntarily as some old memory, adequately perused, shot out the top of her head and was gone – she would fall again, into a place beneath this. At some point, very often, and without planning for it in the least, she would find herself flying – out of herself, out of the house.
There were trees beneath and an ocean not far away – an ocean easier to cross than going to the kitchen for a glass of water.
On these journeys she often met people – again without intending to; it was as if she was sent, in a thoroughly random way, to check up on someone; yet she was to remain detached and indifferent. The moment she became interested in their fate she was returned to her body with a little thump.
It was curious though – although she flew and observed, she registered all that she beheld, in her body; it was through that curious truthfulness the body has that she knew if a picture she saw was right; accurate on the levels that counted; the underneath ones.
Recently, for example, she’d found herself shadowing Persimmon, her cat; she had certainly never imagined she’d need to spend a few hours, compressed no doubt into a few minutes, for time is indeed elastic – she didn’t time her excursions – sitting under a car with him. The street was hot, it was cooler under there; he could see without being seen. He sat in Zen-like composure for a very long time, and when he stood up he scraped his head on something that left oil on it. He shuddered in himself, but had the sense not to try to clean it off alone. Amy felt him agreeing with himself to find her for this task, as well as for his supper.
Strangely, she could also see the person’s soul when she encountered them this way; or in this case, the cat’s soul. Persimmon’s was a sort of amalgam of a mountain, a large topaz, a snake, a tiger-lily, and a ballerina. It was tall and willowy, and it swayed above him in a very sure fashion. Amy gave it a little bow, and it bowed quite formally back to her.
Today though Amy relaxed through the layers and things then began began to hum internally, as if her substance had begun to vibrate all of a piece with itself, and was coming apart like a bridge all tramped-upon-in-unison by soldiers. She breathed very slowly, with long gaps between, almost as if not breathing at all; her body knew how to do this without her bothering it. She was very, very still.
She was in a vehicle with Clem Bob. She felt her body recoil and a queasy wave pass through it. She neither subscribed to nor rejected this wave; but simply remained, watching. In all her journeys she’d never bumped into him before. Her heart was not asking or rejecting; only her body registered its knowledge. She herself was indifferent to his life and doings.
There was however a sort of cool feeling at her left ear – as if someone stretched the cartilage and skin of its outer curve – and this she knew was her attachment to Cindy; for Cindy cared deeply and would always care, about Clem Bob; she would have to pass through sorrows and adventures with men in accordance with this.
Cindy had searched for him in Vancouver and, when it was discovered that both he and his young dark-haired wife had vanished, she searched further away – but without result, and neither she nor Amy had seen him again…That one sighting, so electric in its surprise, was the only time either had laid eyes on husband and father since that hot day long ago when he’d vanished, and the young Ranger had come back and rescued them from where they stood in the stream, right in the teeth of the fire.
Cindy was beautiful and laughing (though not as much as she should laugh) and solemn and kind and even practical. Amy felt blessed and proud. And she could not help Cindy about her father; about men.
The first check had arrived the next week, when they were home from Vancouver, back in California. The next arrived six months later; the last, a year after that. It had been enough – enough for Cindy to finish school, then travel and try out her craft as first a student and then a teacher, in many other countries; to keep a flat she could return to; where she made her plans to open her own institute by and by. She had expanded from pastry chef to vegan warrior, and was busy inventing dishes and waving her flag of vigour and compassion in various forums.
The money was enough for Amy to stop working full-time; she could devote herself much more to painting and other forms of play. She went to a few women’s empowerment groups in Hawaii, and beat pillows with Clem-Bob’s name on them. She strode out in the moonlight with her fellows and screamed with bitch-goddess fury into a dead volcano. She danced and sweated and laughed with the other women, till they fell down on their backs on their mats and lay in joyous relaxation till the session was over.
And all of it was good.
She took the occasional adventure vacation with a man friend. She did not marry; she did not pursue the legalities of Clem Bob’s situation. She understood that that was what the money was for – to keep her away from hounding him. And that was fine with her.
Now she observed, with lucid calm, this scene: a strange, new sort of vehicle, powered by puffs of air over a grassy road: puff, puff, said the motor. The entire domed top was transparent. Clem Bob drove, or piloted, or whatever you’d call it; and beside him was a young man of perhaps twenty; Amy was given somehow to know that this was his great-nephew on his wife’s side.
There were many trees bordering the road; Amy sensed that this was a large island, and that Clem Bob owned it. His hair was now black, which sat oddly on his complexion. His hands were knotted and wrinkled and dry where he held the steering wheel. Amy could smell the mangoes in a bag in the back seat; she knew that Clem Bob’s wife had requested them, and he was taking them back for her.
Clem Bob/Gareth’s soul looked like a mosquito made of light. It kept coming up and biting him on the ear, or even on the shoulder through his shirt; sometimes it hissed into his hair. He ignored it or tried to flap it away; but it persisted. Amy felt it was always there, bothering him.
Clem Bob/Gareth was holding forth. “Yup, Dashiell,” he was saying, “there’s one thing I’ve really learned in all these years of living – the most important thing in life is family. When you get to my age, you look back at your younger years – and you regret losing the people you lost through your own ignorance, your own arrogance. Listen to me, young man…If you have a child with some young woman who took your fancy, and you don’t want anything to do with the kid, and you make yourself scarce…when you’re my age, you’ll wish you had done it different. You’ll miss that person, you’ll need them by and by. Every old man finds that out. I know that now.”
“But,” said Dash, “is family really more important than revelation?”
“Oh, revelation, : said Clem Bob, narrowing his eyes as he swerved to avoid a low-flying bird with a fabulously colourful plumage and a long tail – “It’s not the revelation that matters. It’s what you do with it.”
Hebden Bridge, 2016