EVERY LIVING BEING TURNS savage in spring. I’d seemed to have forgotten that. For a long time, I had made my home among the brick and mortar of brownstones in Brooklyn, where wild things were curated and tamed, tamped down and repotted, lined with gravel paths and staked with signs to declare what they were: species, genus, family, order. Even the raccoons lost their edge and nibbled demurely at the food my neighbors set out for stray cats.
In the foothills west of Medicine Bow, Wyoming, nothing is polite, especially not now, when the snow melts. The air is thin, a gut punch after seventeen years at sea level. Somehow I’d believed that easy adaptation to the altitude was something I carried with me, a provision of my birth. I missed my connection in Denver and took the Greyhound bus up through Cheyenne to Laramie instead, light-headed and full of an unfamiliar ache. My seatmate broke every rule of long-distance transportation and talked incessantly: he was from South Carolina, it sure was hard to make friends in Denver, no one likes to talk, let’s call it the Colorado freeze, ha, ha! He’d so astutely named what I liked best about my origins I was almost pleased to give it to him, that icy Western nod. Fellow creatures, but that’s all.
Rand picked me up at the bus stop, which is little more than a gas station on the edge of town.
He was pissed: the bus was late and it was the kind of damp cold that’s worse than winter.
“That everything?” he said, reaching for my duffel. I have been teased long throughout my life about my reluctance to touch; I’ve never been one for hugs, especially in casual encounters. But all that’s nothing on my brother.
It’s another hour and a half from there to our dad’s house. Rand cranked the heat in the truck, which is his way of coddling me. On the straights of 230, patches of white gleamed under a shining gray sky. Even the clouds are brighter here. Along the northern ridge, the grasses rippled and leapt: mule deer bounding through the sagebrush.
“Road’s pretty shit,” Rand said. The wind was whipping up bursts of rain and I could see stretches of ice that still hadn’t melted. He gripped and stretched his hands at the wheel uneasily. Those hands—somehow in the year since I last saw him they became rancher hands, cracked and swollen around the knuckles. I suppose he could see the age on me, too, but I didn’t like to see it on him. That was the thing. I could sense this sort of fracture in both of us, a feeling that usually lay dormant but thawed out and kicked to life every time I came home, a fault line under the frost.
I WAS IN A BAR on Henry Street when my mother died. I knew this only after the fact, when the coroner determined an estimated time of death. I was drunk the moment her heart stopped beating, and I shouldn’t have much more to say about that, but I do. There are mothers, and then there was my mother. Every Thanksgiving at Katja’s apartment, we toasted to our little New York family of orphans, those who don’t call their parents, those whose parents don’t call them. But I’ve always been a bit of a fraud. I loved our little cabal, the people I chose, and I let them believe I was one of them, but I wasn’t. Their mothers were cruel. Their mothers poked at their bellies and withheld food. Their mothers derided their instincts and taught them to be desirable to men, and men only, and when they fled to New York they dyed their hair purple and covered their arms in ink and praised goddesses and preached savasana and loved one another endlessly. And they drank wine and smoked blunts and danced in living rooms to celebrate having found one another, at having escaped to this other dimension where love could be boundless. I wanted to be a part of it, that escape from a narrow mothering, and I played along, pretending that I, too, had survived my childhood by the skin of my teeth.
But my mother was expansive. She was my mother always, in every dimension.
I FORGET SO MUCH. In a crowded karaoke dive on the Lower East Side, a stranger asked where I was from, and when I told him, he exclaimed, “Oh, that’s God’s country, up there,” as though Wyoming were some kind of rarified plane, blessed on another level.
“Oh, I know,” I assured him, but truthfully, I couldn’t conjure it. Trying to remember was like looking at the sun. It’s only now, as Rand pulled into Dad’s drive, that the full force of it came over me. And still, it’s overexposed, too bright, too raw. It is the land I lived in from birth until the age of eighteen, and I should not be surprised by it anymore.
My dad is the kind of man who needs work to stay alive. Seven years ago, he retired for all of three days before he started refurbishing the truck. Now he fixes fences for the neighbors and takes apart tractors and puts them back together. He can get just about any kind of engine running, from a lawnmower to a combine. The garage door was open, and he was rubbing grease off his hands with an old rag. He raised his fingers in a flicker of a wave when we pulled up, as though I came home all the time.
“Drive okay?” he asked when I hopped down to the gravel drive, sending pebbles scattering in every direction. A man of few words and fewer emotions, I once told Katja. In college, when I came to visit, I’d make a game of it, seeing how long we could talk without him using a verb. That was just after my mom left him and moved to Laramie for a job at the university. Even in that, he’d accepted being left by her in a kind of gruff acquiescence, like he was surprised the marriage had lasted as long as it did anyway.
It was a lovely divorce, my mother said, so lucid and direct in my ear that I whipped around to look for her. But it was just the wind, come running over the plains. It was a lovely divorce. She maintained that until the end. My mother took everything in stride, even the fluctuations of her own desires, always as though she knew exactly how much time she had and how best to spend it.
I hefted my bag over my shoulder, and my dad said, “All right, now,” and we went into the house.
TWO YEARS AGO, my mother set off into the Sierra Madre and was found six days later on the boggy edge of Baby Lake, where she’d set down her pack when she realized she was having a heart attack. After all her care, all her respect for the wild, she was felled by a thing that went after office-dwellers, timid suburban retirees. She’d planned to be out there a while, trekking sections of the Continental Divide, and so no one even knew to look for her until the third day. During the search party, those three days when we knew she was missing but didn’t know yet how we would find her, I envisioned all kinds of better deaths: bears, a fall from a cliff. Hell, dehydration. It took me nearly sixty hours to figure out how to get on a plane. Shock. Katja finally had to take over, booking the tickets, packing my bags, hailing a cab to the airport. When we took off from LaGuardia there was still no word, and in the four hour flight to Denver I convinced myself that she wasn’t missing at all; that my mother, who so loved the world, had merely decided to absent herself from the human realm for a while, that she would come sallying down the trail with her usual vim to apologize for worrying us, but she just had to record the most fascinating Precambrian gneiss deposit. But when I landed, they had found her body.
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TORREY CRIM lives in Brooklyn, New York. Her stories and reviews have been published in journals such as Gulf Coast, Epoch, American Literary Review, Nimrod, and the Brooklyn Rail.