Monday, February 11, 2013

The Science of Landscape


Mom gave me the last box to go through on my own.  She had written my name on it: the old name, the one that doesn't exist anymore, in the same careful, exaggerated hand she has always used to write her children's names.  She does not write anything else this way, capital letters symmetrical and ostentatious, lowercase precisely half as high and blackboard-clear.  Her usual writing is loose and curving, and sometimes all caps.  But never on the old name.  I cannot remember her teaching me to read that name, to recognize the symbols that meant me, but this was surely the hand she had used, slowly forming each line of each letter, saying the name of the letter and the sound it made.  It became a habit to write the name that way, distinct as a lit sign glowing.

I put off looking through the box a long time.  I had thought I would never be able to face it.  I never cried over it; I just said to myself, "No time for that now," and turned away.  He had saved a few things, whatever poor scraps of my childhood he had managed to hold onto.  A paper bag with construction-paper hearts glued to the outside.  It had held valentines in grade school.  A small booklet of mimeographed images, the development of a chick inside its shell, and a rhyme that told the story from blastocyst to bird.  I had colored it.  A page from a Sunday-school scrapbook, some nonsense about making me ready for a mission, as if girls ever went on missions.  In the center, a photograph of me in the blue dress with the Holstein cows on the bib, holding a stuffed rabbit, standing on a folding chair.  This and that.  Weak little things to keep the memory of a daughter, but the fact that he had kept them touched me.  I set them carefully in the bin to throw away, all but the photo.

There were more photos.  Somehow pictures of me as a little girl had become intermingled with pictures of Idaho landscapes and models in peasant clothes bent over buckets or sheaves, and references of cattle in every posture, the odd cow circled with a Bic pen if it was lying at just the right angle to the viewer.  Slopes of foothills and foregrounds of sage blurring into one another, purpling, obscured by a mist of non-archival acid.  I found his thumbprint on the reverse of one photograph, stamped there in burnt umber and smeared at one edge.  I found a stack of clippings: Inness paintings clipped from a magazine, or maybe right from the pages of a library book.  He was the kind of man who would do something as selfish as that.  And at the bottom of the box, the broken end of a maul stick and a long-handled, boar-coarse bright.  One side of its bristles had eroded away from use so that it rose to a lopsided point.  It was stained a color I first called, inside my head, peacock blue.  But no -- you know how to mix that color; he taught you.  Ultramarine and viridian.

I did not throw any of these things away.  I looked at them a long time, flipping through the photos and handling the brush and the maul stick, contemplating Inness.  His mind was not what it used to be by the time he'd died, ten years ago, age forty-nine, having outlived a too-brief career of untouchable brilliance.  The girl whose name was on this box did not exist anymore, as he did not exist anymore.  The woman who had replaced the girl did not believe in prescience, in signs or messages.

I wondered, not for the first time and not for the last, whether he did it himself.  As my sister and I had sorted through his grimy, dismal apartment, salvaging what we could of the father we remembered, a crazy man, one of his friends (they were all crazy) entered without knocking and told us, with the lack of awareness that only that kind of man can possess, that our father had killed himself: that the man himself had seen Dad drink from a tin can without a label on it.  "Like a can of beans, without the top on it, and no label."  My sister told him to get the fuck out of the apartment. We went on working and silently agreed, in that way we have of understanding, that the man was full of shit.  But I think about it all the time, and so I know she does, too.  He had kept his turpentine in a can just like that.  Tin, no label.  It seemed almost that he had put these things in this box for a reason, that he had intended me to look through the box when I was ready and to feel what he felt.  Was this his time capsule?  Was it my inheritance?  Was it meant to confer something onto me, to transfer the strange wild throb of his spirit into my keeping?

I felt at once hollowed and filled, understood and isolated, shuffling through the pictures, watching my young face alternate with his landscapes.  The slope of a sere hill angled sharply into a planting of green.  I stood in the shadow of a lilac bush, reaching up, pulling the blooms down to my face.  Cattle moving down a brown lane.  A puddle reflecting the sky.  My hair a halo of umber and sienna around my face.  The trunks of paper birches, shot vertically and horizontally.  Sage lands.  The squareness of my features, my mouth serious as it always is.  Thirty years had tonalized the past, pushed it backward into an atmospheric distance, faded, washed, remote.


That night you came home late.  Maybe it was the strange, invasive magic of the box that worked on me as your hands worked on me, slower and gentler than ever before, conscientious, though I felt so painfully removed from you, for no reason I could name.  Your arms wrapped around me entirely, a bird in a gentle fist; you clung to me with a jealous possession.  I saw and felt three fractures along reality, as if I stood somehow at a point where my lone life diverged, and I lived in all three at once.  One: I never met you, and after the divorce I went to the Tetons as I had planned, to Driggs or to Jackson.  Two: you left me somehow, or I you, for reasons unknown, and I went to the Tetons as I had planned, and the world was blue, shot vertically, sage lands.  Three: here we were.  We rolled together; I looked down on a world that was you, washed and remote.  Your arm went above your head, tucked behind the pillow.  The friable lines of your body dissolved into a blue distance as mountains dissolve into miles, a mist, ultramarine and viridian.  You were uniformity of color, all remoteness, a tonalist landscape, the Tetons under moonlight.  I buckled with the weight of longing.  I sobbed into your ear, "I love you, I love you, I love you."


  1. You write beautifully, and I have to say with pieces like this I can never tell if I'm reading a memoir, pure fiction, or something in between. It feels so very personal I feel like an intruder in your head.

  2. You are an intruder into my head! Everything I write on this blog is totally factual. I hope that doesn't ruin any of the fun.

    Sorry I took so long to respond. I just started this new day job, which is an awesome job, but has kind of been killing me lately. Plus I got the norovirus yesterday. I do not recommend it.

  3. And thank you for the compliment. I appreciate it.