Packwood Jenn Blair
It’s tiring, looking at dead people’s faces. I guess I’m about the only person in Yakima who gets paid for taking the paper from the front step and reading the obituaries. Who liked digging for clams on the coast and spending time with their grandkids, who had a passion for repairing and painting broken statuary—that kind of thing. When people send in memorial gifts to hospital programs in the names of the deceased, someone has to update the computer records and find the next of kin so we know who to send out thank you letters to. “Dear Mrs. Johnson, Please accept our condolences on the death of your husband. The following gifts have been made in memory of Mr. Edward Johnson to the Children’s Fund/Hospice Fund/Cancer Center.” That’s what I do. That’s how I know that Eulalia Smith enjoyed watching squirrels and birds, and Ed Watts had a voice just like George Jones when he called out square dances in Moxee, and Gloria Wilkinson got her driver’s license at forty-seven, though none of her four children believed she could.
I’ve been working here seven months, ever since I went to Professional Temp Services and took the typing test. The job is mostly fine. When I told my Great Aunt about it, she asked if losing my mind from sadness was a serious concern. Not really, I told her, though I’m never quite sure when something’s going to hit me hard. Sometimes I cry at nothing (he was a regular fixture at the VFW bingo hall), and other times, the most devastating tragedies (preceded in death by four of her children), do nothing. The protocol is quite clear: when a person dies, we’re to leave nothing but the first and last name. Any titles, like Miss, Mrs., Doctor, Col., Rev., or Hon. are dropped. If the person was married, we still have to open a new file and type the name in again. Alone. We can link one record to another, but we still must create two separate records. Sometimes I do have to take an extra breath, though, to steel myself before highlighting a name, and hitting delete. I picture a widow somewhere, sitting at her kitchen table drinking coffee, suddenly feeling worse without knowing why.
Today I leave work around five p.m., my usual time, but as I sit in my car, the thought of going back to my empty house for another night seems almost unbearable. Instead of turning down Summitview, I turn right on Lincoln, and head up to Naches, the small town that’s home to Tillie’s candy shop—famous for its jars of home-canned pickles and black jelly beans. At work today, the friendly woman down the hall, Shay, said she’d shut all her windows before coming in because of a wind warning on the radio. And sure enough, it’s blowing hard already and every so often the car sways enough to really frighten me. I should probably turn around, but I don’t. I keep driving—past Oak Creek and the Game Lodge Motel with its neon antler head and sign for ICE. Traveling along the edge of Rimrock Lake, I eventually pass Silver Beach and its small pier, fully emptied of summer boats. Clouds move low and fast over the land. A few more miles past Rimrock, the wind startles trees out of their pinecones and branches; sometimes, it kicks up a pillar of dirt and dust.
This afternoon at work, Shay looked up from her fiscal year pie chart.
“Do you like this pale yellow color?” she asked me, pointing to a tiny sliver on her computer screen. I nodded.
“It’s only two percent of the budget, though. Maybe it doesn’t jump out enough.”
At White Pass, the slopes are bare, and the lines of empty chair lifts swing back and forth in the brisk wind. The white truck that’s been keeping a respectful distance behind me turns off at Clear Lake. I turn the radio louder while passing through falling rock zones. At last, I realize where I’m going—to Ohanapecosh, a campground just outside the Mt. Rainier National Park, where we went when I was a kid. The upper park might be closed, but I hope I can at least get to the Grove of the Patriarchs. I want to see those huge trees out on the island. Trees with water running all around them, so no fire ever touched them and there was nothing for them to do about it but grow—nothing to do but helplessly flourish. But before I reach the campground and Grove, I find a gate blocking the road—still closed for winter. After I turn around, I head a few more miles up the road to Packwood, a small logging town. The Old Time Inn, on the left side of the road near the only grocery store, seems nice enough. I spy an indoor pool and a few cars and trucks in the lot.
In the lobby, a lady eventually appears from behind the white lace curtain. She’s middle-aged, wearing a pink sweater with gray snowflakes. She says she and her husband are back there watching TV. Yesterday they gardened. But not today, not with all this wind. I answer her questions: No. Just me. Double bed is fine. Only a night. Just had to get away.
“Oh, boy, do I know that feeling.”
My key is for room three. The room is small with cheap wood paneling. I look in the bathroom. The toilet and bath are the color of dried mustard. The shampoo and soap are both discount, “Fine Choice” brands—frustrating because in fact there is no choice at all in the matter. I’m a grown woman, but someone should still probably know where I am. Since I can’t call him, I call my mother. She says the power was out at the house this morning. A backhoe hit the line. Eventually, I say I am up in the woods. She seems unfazed by this, and we chat a little more. But just before she hangs up—
“Are you alone?”
For some reason, the question makes me furious.
After I hang up the phone, I put on my coat, lock the door, and walk to the grocery store to look at the toothbrushes. I ask where the cash machine is, then study the BBQ chips display at the aisle-end near a table of wilted apple fritters. When I take my items to the checkout counter, the cashier is telling the lady in front of me that they’ll get new registers in June. A young cashier the next row over sighs and says she hopes to be gone by then. In my sack, I have a can of black olives, an orange toothbrush, and a pack of men’s razor blades. On the bulletin board outside the store, an extra-large scrap of pale yellow paper flutters: “Strong reliable disabled woman (one leg). Need to get back on my feet (literally).” I keep reading. She will do yard work, house chores, and other small projects, bringing along her husband if the job requires some extra help.
It’s still windy and cold. Walking with my bag, I come to a house with a driveway full of tables piled high with cut rocks. There’s also a big wooden cross with nails on the arm-beams leaning against one of them. The sign in the window says open, and there is a table and chair and a business card with a man’s name on it. Larry Young. But no one is there. I stroll around the tables. There’s lapidary equipment on the floor, an old rock pick on the wall. There are framed pictures of praying hands and the foot prints poem. And in the corner, a statuette of the praying hands, more rocks, and a few vertebrae of some creature that has no name to my knowledge but is colossal and terrifying and gone forever. Under the tables, Darigold and Carnation crates hold rocks. Rocks formed from Mount St. Helens ash, geodes, and petrified wood. Rocks shined and shaped into eggs, sitting in an egg carton. There’s a torn out plastic restaurant table with both booths—rocks spilling across the surface and “special” rocks from Wyoming and Utah sitting in old ice cream cases. On top of one case, a side slice of a rock sits. Like a slab of meat, or an ice cave set on fire, Glory speaking loud through a Brillo pad, something that could scrub you clean. I stare and stare. I want that one. But when I pick it up, there’s no price tag. And there’s still no Larry Young.
You’re not that old. Just getting started on middle-age. There’s still have plenty of time. Shay says that all the time. She doesn’t say I’m pretty, she says I’m funny. And so nice. I leave the crates of rocks and keep going. Next, I come to the library and “The Bright Beacon Presbyterian Thrift store.” On my way in, I hold open the door for a man carrying a printer out. As soon as I’m inside, a lady asks me, “You need a printer? They’re free. Marty called next door and just unloaded eight of them but there are more.”
The woman must be in her late fifties. Despite the weather, she’s wearing hot pink shorts, a tank top that matches, and a nicotine patch on her left shoulder. She used to live in California, but she likes it much better here. The mountain is outside her window, and there are not as many kids up here, and none of them are on skateboards. She figures she became an adult the year after high school, after the summer, when the fall came and her mother eventually said what are you going to do? She took a job in the printing business and kept it for ten years. But there were union dues and the older people clung to their jobs while the younger ones lost out, and maybe she shouldn’t have quit, but why waste time thinking about if you should have gone left or right.
“What do you do?” She suddenly asks.
“I work in a hospital. Just in the office.”
“Oh, so you’re not working right with the bodies.”
“No. Not exactly.”
“They have a good cafeteria?” she asks, after a pause.
“When we were waiting and my brother was sick, we’d go down to the cafeteria. They had the best four bean soup. But the cream of cauliflower. Now that was another story.”
She tells me that was down in California. Three years ago. Her brother had emphysema and congestive heart failure and they took the train down to see him. He was already in a hospice, and he said no funeral so they went to her sister’s house and just bawled.
“Me too. But it’s best he went. He had a good life. And there wasn’t nothing left for him here but to drag around that oxygen tank all over the place. Have kids stare at him in restaurants.”
She notices me looking at a frame on the floor.
“The other day some man in here asked me if we had any old pictures. Doesn’t that one look old?” She points, a mountain.
“Sure,” I say.
“He asked me what mountain it was and was it Mt. Rainier,” she says, looking at it, “But it’s not. Know how I know?”
I shake my head.
“Too much granite.”
Then a younger woman behind the counter calls her over. As I look at books, the woman behind the counter pops open a soda. She says its cream soda. She absolutely loves soda, but this is the only one that won’t give her heartburn. The older lady tells her, “I’m the only person I know who gets it from watermelon. It could kill me.”
“Oh,” the young woman says, “Look at what someone brought in yesterday.” She pulls out something and the older lady reads, then starts laughing. “Show her,” she commands the woman behind the counter, pointing at me. When I come close, she unfolds a white tea towel with dark blue lettering. She quickly folds the message inward, telling me, “People sometimes forget we’re a Presbyterian thrift store.”
“I guess we could put fifty cents on it and put it out—in case a Methodist happens to drop by,” the older woman says. I laugh, but the woman behind the counter looks confused.
“Is that a joke?” she asks.
“God, lighten up, of course it is,” the other tells her. “Or maybe you could take it home, put it in your and Marty’s kitchen.”
“Well,” she says, eyes dropping back to the towel, “well.” She looks around like she wants to be careful no one else can overhear her, “I don’t think that particular message would fit in our home. Things are a little...”
She trails off.
“Oh, that’s too bad,” the older lady says, suddenly serious. I feel like I’m intruding, overhearing something I shouldn’t, so I look down at the booklet in my hands (written by a retired Park Ranger: Lupine, Avalanche Lilies, other local wildflowers). When I look up, the younger woman is smiling again, like the information she revealed doesn’t really matter. “Marty and I have been married for twelve years,” she tells me. “Known each other for thirteen. It’s a long time. But he’s the best.” When she nods her head, I realize Marty must be the man hauling the printers in and out the door.
“That’s my husband.”
Soon, he comes back in to make a sign and says purple is his favorite color, deep purple like the Huskies, all the while looking intently at the marker he’s using. I have enough books. Before I leave, I say, “Twelve years. Good for you.” It’s lame, but I can’t think of anything else.
That’s my husband. Isn’t that what you say? When you come in a room. And there he is already, holding a glass of red wine. Talking intently, with a small group gathered around him, but he’s yours. That’s my husband you say, and any minute, he’ll raise his eyes and look at you like what can we do about all these other people, and he smiles and shrugs, and you smile and shrug back. You say it casually. Like you almost forgot, like you wouldn’t have thought of it if you hadn’t just seen him there. Then you walk over to the plate of crackers and cheese. Like it’s no big deal and your life isn’t bound up in it. Like underneath, nothing’s trembling.
I take a nap, then head back out in the rain to one of the few restaurants, a pizza place a block over. The Mariners are on TV. They’re holding out over the Orioles, seven to five. Wherever they play it seems grim and cold. Martinez has a warm hat. Boone looks tired. Dashing back through the rain, I see a man out on the covered sidewalk near my door, blowing his nose in a handkerchief. When he says hello, I nod and keep going.
Before bed, I sit in the tub until the water goes cold, my sack from the store beside me. I touch one of my thighs, check for the fat on the sides that dimples your skin and forces you to throw away the shorts that were acceptable just last summer. Then I touch my stomach as if I need to know it can still feel. Who would do it? If I wasn’t there to get the paper and read the obits. Who would they hire to sit at my desk? Who would do it in the meantime? Would Shay? That woman with one leg?
Early the next morning, I drop the key in the slot, and start up the road. There, where all the tables of rocks are, stands a man with a beard and a yellow flannel shirt. I stop the car and roll down my window because I have to know.
“Are you Larry Young?” I ask.
“That’s me,” he replies, coming over to the car. “I think I saw you in the pizza place last night, didn’t I?”
“Maybe you did, I was there for a bit,” I nod.
“Should have joined you,” he said, “Or you me. I just got mine to go.”
“Yeah,” I reply, not knowing what to say next. When I realize he looks confused, I change the topic. “I came by to see these yesterday. Quite a collection. But you weren’t here.”
“Oh,” he scratched his head. “I’m sorry. I don’t get many customers so I’m a little loose about the hours.”
“But,” he said, “I’m here now. Was there something you wanted?”
“A geode,” I say, catching myself off guard.
“Sure thing,” he says, moving over to one of the cardboard boxes. I get out of the car with my purse, rustling around in it to see if I have any change.
“No, no,” he says, when he turns around, box in his hands. “You just pick the one you like.”
“I want to pay you, though.”
“Lady,” he says with a little exasperation but also a smile, “Just take one. And tell your friends about me.”
“All right,” I say, picking a small gray one, “Sure thing. Thanks so much.”
“You’re welcome,” he says. “Have a safe drive.”
“I will.” I get back in the car and put the rock on my side seat. He waves at me like I’m his sister or a long lost cousin and I wave back.
Above Rimrock, steep cliffs inhale sharply against the sky. I decide to stop the car and get out and read the plaque, the one he would never stop for. A few pine needles have fallen on the sign, which is about Tieton Dam. There was a lull in the work during World War One, but during the Depression, the site became a welcome project. A town sprung up. Miners blasting through the granite. Lumber jacks. Men pouring concrete. The nearby store offered ice cream: “a treat made possible by grazing cows and mountain snow.”
I get back in the car. The town is gone now. Nothing is left but the dam and a store down at Indian Creek where you’ve got to be careful of hunters, who like to make dangerously swift left turns. I fly past Wild Rose campground, until I am back to green grass and Balsam Root and spring. In Naches, I stop to use the bathroom, and the Drift Inn is full of gray-haired men chattering over eggs. Near Tieton, kids push through the wind to the school bus. I hurry home to shower, then find an ironed shirt and slacks. At work, I carefully place the geode by my paper clip holder. I sit down and stare at it for a while, before getting up again to grab the purple folder full of the files I didn’t finish entering yesterday.
Shay bustles in a few minutes after me, carrying her breakfast, a spot of grease shines through the paper bag. She sets down her purse by the computer, and takes off her coat.
“You have a nice evening?”
“What’s that by your stapler?”
“Oh,” I say looking over, “It’s a geode.”
“Huh,” Shay says, because there’s nothing else to say.
After a few minutes of filing, it’s time to go out front for the paper. Eight today. Glenda Williams did an oil painting that still hangs in the bank at Mabton. Roger Temple inspected B-17s. Millie Frader worked on the floats for the Harrah Sugar Beet festival. Bill Smart was born in a blizzard in Reeder, North Dakota, then shot down forty-three planes in World War Two and saved the three-inch piece of shrapnel that got stuck in his gunner seat.
Originally published in Moss: Volume One.