Visitation

Luke-Smithers_Photofictions-Visitation_Fiction_Ind

The place holds memories, too—in the tire tracks of the pullout, among passing clouds, between the needles of the pines. Most are of passing strangers. They come at different times of the day. In the morning they stop and watch the sun rise: the doctor who stood on the rock and felt his pulse; the woman who sat on the rock in that upright posture, as if waiting for the place to fall across her lap like a blanket; the mom and dad standing outside their car and the space between them and their long pauses and the eyes in the backseat of the broken-down car. In the quiet between visitors, the place stills and contemplates what makes one year colder than another, why the sky is blue and not green, not noticing the bird crafting its nest, the familiar face in a cloud drifting overhead. Only when another car, loud, rounds the bend does the place realize the heaviness of the silence, like the moment after a grenade rolls in at the feet. Before long, the sun is setting on final visitors: the woman who took photos and talked to herself (“I’ll send this to him tonight. He’ll like that,” as she opened her car door); the dad who held his crying child to the light and buried his face in her shoulder.

Then, night. Idleness. Recollecting the arrowheads at the base of Crafton Hill, the skulls of the hikers in the narrow cave by the bend. Memories settle. The place does not see them, does not think of them. Sometimes a car will approach from around the curve, headlights like pebbles in an ocean. The low purr of the engine. It passes. Night passes. The sun rises. The sun sets. The sun rises. A couple and their newborn sit on the rock and watch the birds. The sun sets. The earth spins on its axis like a toy.

October comes. Empty nests, some with eggshells, are blown from the branches to freeze with the earth. The tourist season is over. Snow will soon come. And road closures. And isolation like the insides of a glove box. Perhaps this is why the place begins inventing stories. Perhaps it is only a way to be immersed in something other than the winter blues. The woman mediating on the rock of the pullout in the early morning, for instance, is a single mother of four. A yoga instructor. A yoga instructor with mounting debt. A yoga instructor perched on the rock with her arms stretched upward and hands clasped toward the sky as if to seal a hole to keep centuries of memories (whispers of Native Americans who point to the eagle nest in the upper branches of a tree; the slice of machetes; the awful hum of bulldozers, the numb convulsions of an earthquake) from seeping out. Similarly, the middle-aged man whose parents were both killed in a car accident. That is why he parks so far from the road. Or maybe he has been afraid of roads since his boyhood, when he watched his cousins crash toy cars into each other, their dazed eyes, but has shoved his fears aside to drive up into the mountains to visit his ailing grandmother. He is a scientist, a botanist. That is why he crouches by the buckwheat beyond the rock at the edge of the pullout. He does not know the place, cannot know that it is right now weaving together threads of his life, from the coils of the phone cord when he played and replayed his grandmother’s message that broke the news of his grandfather’s death to, thirty years later, the untied shoelace of his high-school sweetheart’s child in the supermarket.

And so, when late in the day, the sun dropping, the mountains becoming their silhouettes, a teenage boy and his mother roll to a stop, they too are subject to invention.

She flinches at his slamming of the car door, but he doesn’t see. The sound reminds her of something. She looks down at her hands and remembers: The cat. The back door. The slam of the door and the crack and the cry from the cat. Perfume smell of the animal hospital waiting room. The moon-shaped scars on the back of the vet’s hand. Closed doors. Holding her son’s head. His cry. Muffled coughs behind the wall. “Coccygeal muscles.” “Necrotic tissue.” Surely he doesn’t remember. She looks up. He is on the far side of the pullout, looking down at his camera. “Stop here,” he had said in the car as they went around the curve. She had sighed and tightened her grip on the steering wheel. She would get it right this time. She wouldn’t forget to wind it first. She wouldn’t forget to count from three. She steps to his side as he toys with the exposure. His hands are much like hers: pale, with green veins akin to those running down a leaf of a houseplant. Only younger. He walks to the big rock at the edge of the pullout and stands on it. She recalls his instructions. Pointer finger on shutter. Arrange the subject on an invisible grid (she always has trouble with this). Does he want to be centered? She panics. The cat’s tail hung limp and blood was on the floor and then she heard the thumps of his shoes on the stairs. He wascoming down, and fast. She told the cat, “Hush now!” and switched the kitchen lights off. He is waiting now. She decides to center him—“One.” She takes in a breath. “Two”—and now the moment she hates, the interlude between “Two” and “Three,” a terrible slot of time. Through the viewfinder, he is like her angst, off-balance, teetering. He flails his arms (why does he do that?). They swing back and forth, and she is back to the cat, the way its tail had swished from side to side before she closed the door. The white fur on the tip and, later, the red smudge on the sole of her shoe. Does he remember?

“Did you take it?”

Now. The shutter clicks. It is over. The turn of the cat’s head and the yellow of his eyes, slivers of his pupils. Surely he doesn’t remember. Surely the memory has waned and moved on like a rejected stray. Go on, now. Shoo! She lowers the camera and looks at him. He himself has waned and moved on, from the stuffed animals crammed under his bed, the school dances, the overworked pseudonyms of alternate identities: Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny. When they are back in the car and have sat awhile in silence and watched the sun dilate, he asks her if she thinks it will turn out.

“It will turn out,” she says. She will drop the film off as soon as they’re back home, she decides.  And she will pick it up an hour later, and they will have turned out. And he will be happy and compliment her camera skills. “Thank you,” she will say.

There is also the story of the boy: why he chose to stop here, why he flailed his arms, where he is going with his mother, why he doesn’t tell her she has lipstick on her teeth. But the earth is spinning, and the place is weary of invention—would rather welcome idleness, and wait for the pebbles moving across the ocean of the night. The boy and his mother go, their car leaving a tail of smoke.

An estate sale. The mementos of a life: Jesuses and Marys thrown in with shoes and flower vases; miscellaneous puzzle pieces; a mother holding up her baby like a prize. Neighbors sort through the boxes of a distance neighbor they had seen only once or twice, checking the mailbox, sweeping leafs from the porch. A life as mysterious and unknown as a UFO. One neighbor finds an aquarium—old and scummy but usable nonetheless. And another, a newspaper clipping of a Boy Scout troop in the woods. But what is this? A neighbor with a picture of a place with mountains and in the center, a boy standing on a rock moving his arms.

Now the place is settling in for the night. Soon darkness inches in over the valleys, the mountaintops, the pullout. Silence. The place waits for the next visitors.