The Last Frontier

At 25, Oliver was married. At 28, Oliver was a father. At 30, Oliver was promoted to the head of the biology department at the University of Wisconsin. At 37, Oliver and his wife, Marie, moved into a two-story house. At 45, Oliver ran over and killed his neighbor’s daughter. At 46, Oliver helped his son pack for college (USC). At 48, Oliver is in Alaska, at a gas station, walking back to his car after asking for directions to Mount Eyak Ski Area. The station is full, mostly of hunters. His car is at the back of the lot, past the pumps. He passes faces, young and old. In the passenger seat of a station wagon, a blond woman watches her husband wait as gas fills the tank, his back against the pump. A man with a cane stands by his pickup and squints at the cloudy sky. A white scar runs down the side of his neck.

Certain memories are like scars, how they last: the woman Oliver passed on the way to his mother’s hospital room who was crying into a pillow; the foreign buttons and switches of the bulldozer at his first job; the smeared spheres of Saturn on the driveway after a rain. They are also like cells, as Oliver once told his Introduction to Biology class, reflecting on how some memories clumped together.

As he walks back to the car across the lot, Oliver finds a memory—then a clump. There is a van. A yellow van. An old van. A van very much like the one he used to have. He heard sounds. First, a thud, like a tap on the cover over a hollow space, a hollowed-out head, a skull. Her skull. Just for a second, her hair spread out on the windshield like the fan of a geisha. And then her body rolled up the glass. Something rolled up inside him, too. He can’t quite say. It wasn’t physical. It wasn’t blood curling back into the veins from the heart. Or the bronchioles of his lungs knotting together. But there was something. Something there. He felt it. He caught glimpses of her face: white, round, ghostly. (He recalls looking up from his newspaper while seated at the kitchen table and seeing through the side window the top half of her head go up and down, up and down, as she jumped on the trampoline.) But all was too quick. As soon as he found himself thinking of Lisa (Such a sweet girl! Did you know she knew how to play three instruments? At seven! Such a shame. A shame.), he was thinking of his own childhood: his hiding place under the kitchen sink, how secluded he’d felt. And later, down at the bottom of the deep end of the town pool. Why he was thinking of his own childhood as poor, poor Lisa went up onto the roof, he does not know. The truth was, he didn’t run over her—she rolled over him. And with a rhythm! Like a routine, almost. Bum. Ba-bum. Little Lisa, thundering. Bum. Ba―and then down the back. He did not look. Where was he looking? What was he doing? Surely he was already opening the door of the van and sprinting to the back to catch her limp body before it hit the ground. Surely he was running to call 9-1-1. Surely he was performing CPR on Lisa. But he wasn’t. He was looking at his hands on the steering wheel, thinking how they were like his father’s. Sunken knuckles, thick wrists. How delicate his mother’s hands were in comparison. At last, Lisa hit the ground. All unrolled. The memory settled.

A raindrop lands on Oliver’s cheek.

Here is his wife: wrinkles around the eyes, hair tucked behind the ears, hands tight on the steering wheel. “You get them?”

He passes her the torn receipt on which he wrote down the directions. He can’t remember directions—the lefts become rights, rights become lefts. He snaps himself in under his seatbelt, and they are off.

Minutes pass. Silence but for the occasional “Look there!” Mountains. A moose. A shack with a roof slumped in the middle from the weight of snow. Five years of planning for this. For what? A state gone aloof? Empty but for a few bears and moose? It was her idea. I want to go to Alaska, she had said. Take a break, clear our heads. The Last Frontier. She stares down the road. He peers at her and remembers all the evenings after it happened that he would go outside to fill the birdfeeders and would look up and find her staring at him from the kitchen window, her face held in the V of the maple’s reflection. She would look down then and continue to chop onion, or watch the water from the faucet push scraps toward the drain.

They pass a sign: Mount Eyak 50 miles. “Look!” She points. An elk stands in a field.

Silence.

They pass a cemetery and, again, Oliver slips back years. He parked on the side of the road and walked through the dew to her grave. The sky had turned from black to light blue. He stared at the headstone and stepped back in case it had been planted a few inches off; it was the least he could do. Should he have talked? Should he have told her he never saw her coming? But then he would have imagined a voice asking him why he was there, at her grave. And what would he say? That he’d seen a girl in the supermarket the previous afternoon he’d thought was her, until the mom rounded the aisle and took her hand and led her away? That he couldn’t shake her face? That he saw it in the clouds? In the fogged mirror in the bathroom after his shower? That he’d crept out of his house at four that morning like a bandit?

He should have brought flowers.

Instead, he patted the granite lamb that sat atop the headstone and then hurried back to his van, afraid a dog might sniff him out.

When they reach Mount Eyak, they buy their passes and rent their skis. Outside the lodge, Oliver holds his skis in one hand and puts his other arm around Marie’s shoulder, as if posing for a photograph. Then they snap in and take the lift to the top. She gives him tips (“To stop, point your skis together. Make a wedge.”), and at noon they ski a green circle. “See? Wasn’t that easy?” she says, grinning. At two, they ski another green circle. At three, another. Then they eat a late lunch. From the window in the lodge, Oliver watches skiers swoop across slopes of the mountain like students scampering across the campus at the nine o’clock bell. They talk of their son, Matthew, his grades, his friends, his life away from home. He thinks of the time two years ago at Christmas when Matthew and his friends stole Jesus from His manger. Oliver found Him curled in the corner of his son’s closet like a discarded towel. He’d picked Him up and held Him close to his chest. What do you think this is? Funny? A practical joke? A shrug of the shoulders. Perhaps word of Lisa’s death had spread through the high school, too. Perhaps his son was harassed, called the offspring of a murderer. Perhaps this was his way of retaliation. In any case, Jesus was back in His manger by the next morning, the pit of a peach set in hay.

They ski a few more greens. At five, they are at the top of the mountain, and snow has started to fall.

“Let’s try a blue. It can’t be that bad.”

He checks to make sure her boots are secure in her bindings. He checks his own.

On the slope, he trails right behind her a while, but eventually she skis farther ahead. He wipes snow from his goggles. Soon she is below him and on the other side of the trail, a black mark against the white. For a moment, closing an eye, as if to peer into his microscope, he watches her and wishes he were the man at the picnic table at the bottom of the trail, waiting for his wife to come down. Yet here is, going faster than he’d like, the trees along the trail like stiff guards.

Then a man comes from somewhere off to the side. He cuts in front of Oliver and showers his goggles with snow. Oliver shakes his head and looks over his shoulder to find where the man came from, a trail through some brush. When he looks back, his wife and the man are on the ground. A wreck. A collision. He skis down to them, fear pooling in him, and points his skis together until he stops. Standing over her, he feels as if he is sinking. She is conscious, breathing, but he imagines her broken: wrists snapped like frozen branches, vertebrae of her spine cracked off like Legos. In an hour, she will be the anonymous patient on the operating table, opened, exposed, he is sure. (What a good wife she was, good mother. The beautiful flash of light that was Marie’s life!) Then she starts to get up. And so does the man. Oliver stares at them as if they are ghosts. They check themselves for injuries.

“You okay?” A nod. “You?” A nod. They laugh. Then the man skis off. Marie turns to Oliver. He looks her up and down a few times. “Oliver, I’m fine.” They stand there a moment longer. Then she slaps his cheek. “Enough, my love. Snap out of it.” And she faces down the slope and, that easily, skis off without him. Oliver watches, thinking as she grows distant: the memory of Lisa grew distant, too. Rainbow xylophone and little socks gathering dust. He looks out over the landscape. Beyond the lodge and just above a set of hills across the valley, a flock of birds turns and turns, as if searching for a place to perch. He can hear snowflakes landing on his shoulders. Down at the lodge, people are plodding around in their ski boots and trying to keep their hot chocolates from spilling. He pictures Marie already inside, with a drink. Or maybe she got lost on the way down and is waiting for him to come to her rescue.

It feels as if he has a choice: let the past go, like a group of immigrants seeing their home fade from the ship’s deck. Wave. Weep. Or let it wither like the boutonniere a mother saves from her son’s prom.

Suddenly tired, he lets his eyelids close. Quiet in the black of the deep end of the town pool. His mother’s warped face above the surface, her outstretched hand summoning. Oliver, come back up! When he opens his eyes to the falling snow, it’s like looking out from inside a cheap snow globe. The flakes accumulate, and he is sinking again, until he pushes with his poles to ski down the rest of the slope, searching for his wife.