Oct 1 2012 12:00pm
Jill Anthony spent her young adulthood in the ski town of Sparkle, Colorado. But more than a decade has passed since she left when, only weeks after a very late miscarriage, she finds her husband in bed with another woman, she flees Austin, Texas for the town she knows: Sparkle.
Lisa Carlucci wakes up one morning after another night of meaningless sex, looks in the mirror and realizes that she no longer wants to treat her body like a Holiday Inn. She’s going to hold out for love. The only problem is, love might come in the form of her ski bum best friend, who lives next door with his ski bum friends in a trailer known as “the Kennel.”
Cassie Jones, at age ten, has lost her mother to cancer and no longer believes in anything anymore. She knows her father is desperately worried about her, and she constantly looks for messages from her deceased mother through the heart-shaped rocks they once collected in the streams and hills of Sparkle.
Three people at the crossroads of heartbreak and healing. Three lives that will be changed one winter in Sparkle. One tender, funny, tear-jerking novel you won’t soon forget
Get a sneak peek of Terry Spear's How I Learned to Sparkle Again (available October 2, 2012) with a special excerpt from Chapters 1-2.
SNOW REPORT FOR NOVEMBER 17 Current temperature: 29F, high of 33F at 3 p.m., low of 22F at 4 a.m. Clear skies, winds out of the southwest at 10 mph. 25“ mid-mountain, 33” at the summit. 1“ new in the last 24 hours. 6” of new in the last 48.
Cassie and her babysitter, Nancy, sat silently at the table eating Lean Cuisine cheese cannelloni frozen dinners. Nancy’s breathing bothered Cassie, even though she knew Nancy couldn’t help having sinus problems. Cassie just didn’t want to listen to it. It reminded her of her mother’s last two weeks, when her breathing had become so difficult. To make it worse, Nancy was sitting at her mother’s place at the table.
Cassie looked up at Nancy, wishing she weren’t there—not in her mother’s place at the table or in her mother’s place as her caregiver.
“Do you need something, Cassie?” Nancy asked.
“Don’t sit there anymore,” Cassie said.
Nancy looked startled and slowly stood. “Where would you like me to sit?” she asked gently.
Cassie looked at her father’s place at the table. “There,” she said. “He’s the one you’re replacing.”
She looked back down at her cheese cannelloni while Nancy moved. The mere smell of it made her stomach turn. Of all the frozen dinners, it was the least offensive, but it was offensive nonetheless. She’d never eaten out of cardboard during the ten years of her life that her mother was alive, and she feared that if she kept eating Lean Cuisine, she would become as weak and fat as Nancy. She stared at her food and wondered if any of it really mattered.
All of her Olympic dreams were going down the tubes anyway. She hadn’t even joined ski team this year. When she skied, she felt sad now, so deeply sad that she just wanted lie down in the snow and fall asleep.
She looked down at her dinner again and wanted to throw it, but she couldn’t rally enough will even for that. She simply said, “I hate this crap,” got up, walked up the stairs to her room, and locked herself inside.
From her room, Cassie could hear the sound of Nancy’s regular evening routine—the lid of the stainless-steel garbage can opening and closing as she threw away the cardboard trays, the spring in the dishwasher door creaking as she opened it to put in the forks, the sound of running water and the microwave beeping two and a half minutes later. Finally, Cassie heard the questions and buzzers on Jeopardy! and occasionally Nancy’s voice when she shouted out the few answers that she knew. As usual, the TV stayed on for the duration of the night, and the noise, combined with Nancy’s snoring, drowned out the sound of Cassie’s sobs during or after her nightmares.
Mike Jones wanted to believe that Kate’s soul was eternal, but he wasn’t sure if a person could believe in that without believing in God. Believing in God wasn’t so easy. Five hours ago, he was on a call for a woman who drove off a steep embankment and miraculously was okay. She gave full credit to God. And now he was here, at this accident, a head-on collision between a semitruck and a family in a minivan. Both parents and one child were dead. The other child appeared to have a punctured lung and probably internal bleeding. She was barely hanging on. With a dying little girl in the back of his aid car who would wake up without her family if she made it at all, he couldn’t help wondering where God was this time.
It made no sense to him, this idea that some people got God and some people didn’t. There were those who had told him that we could not know the intention behind God’s plan for us—that we had to trust that we were in good hands and that maybe as our lives unfolded, we would see how something was for the best. And then there were the others who believed everything was a test, that God tried to protect us from the bad things, but sometimes Satan won and that Satan tried to do things to diminish our faith in God. Mike glanced back as he drove on and listened to John and Ben continuing to work to stabilize the girl. He did not see how the outcome of this accident would ever be for the best. And he did not see Satan, either. He saw only misfortune—human error and misfortune. It brought him the most peace to simply believe that people were imperfect, and life was imperfect, and sometimes bad things just happened. And if you were lucky, emergency services would show up in time to give you a second chance at life.
He thought about all the times he’d saved someone’s life and the person had attributed this miracle to God. Part of him was always tempted to make a joke of it, something like No, that was my hand stopping the bleeding or No, God didn’t send me; the trucker with the cell phone did. Why, he wondered, was it so hard to see humankind as capable of creating miracles? Miracles were just second chances if you really thought about it— second chances when all hope was lost.
But maybe he had it all wrong. Maybe there was more to it than that.
Eight months ago, the day before he’d found out about Kate’s cancer, he went on a call that he thought about from time to time. A man had lost control of his car on the ice going down a long hill and plowed right into the back of another car. The front of his car was crushed, and his foot was caught on the gas pedal somehow. He said he saw flames creep out of the hood of the car and thought he was a goner. Then he noticed two identical tall, Nordic-looking men, one on the side of the road to his right and the other walking over to his door. Flames were now licking into the car around the edges of the fire wall. The twin on the side of the road disappeared, while the other opened his door, freed his foot, lifted him out of the car, and set him down on the side of the road. When a state patrol officer arrived shortly after, the man told him about the twins, wanting to thank the one who saved his life. The officer told him there was no one else at the scene besides the people in the car in front of him, and no one in the car in front had seen anybody. As Mike had driven him to the hospital to be checked, the man tried to understand how no one else could have seen them. He wondered out loud if they were angels.
The next day when Kate’s doctor told Mike and her about the cancer, he wondered whether the man in the car accident and his angel story were sent to him to give him faith, faith that something would protect and strengthen his wife throughout her battle, that something would lovingly take her home when she died. He wanted to believe it. He did. But as time had gone on and he and his daughter, Cassie, witnessed unbearable and seemingly unending suffering, he couldn’t help wondering about the God that would not grant a miracle then. He saw no divinity in all that suffering. He saw no divinity in God taking his daughter’s mother. He saw no divinity in any of it. But he did see divinity in the outpouring of support for his family from the community.
So at the end of the day, here was what Mike was able to believe in: people. It was people and their kindness that made him feel blessed. It was people who were the heroes, and people who were generous, and people who comforted one another.
And he believed in nature, in survival instincts, in the way living things will cling to every last shred of life and fight for it. He believed in a cell’s ability to multiply and repair even the most heinous injuries. He believed in life.
And just as he thought that, the girl in the back of the aid car flatlined despite all their efforts. And while he was glad she wouldn’t be waking up in severe pain in the hospital without her parents and her brother, he was not glad she was dead. He wondered again where God was now, but truly he did not want to hear anyone make up a story to try to explain. He did not want to hear any more explanations, anyone else grasping to make sense of things that didn’t make sense. He wished more people would just admit they didn’t know.
He was glad that it wouldn’t be up to him to notify the family’s relatives. It had been only four months since Kate died, and he found it extremely difficult to deal with other people’s grief while he dealt with his own. And even though he did not believe in God, he hoped the mourners did. He hoped they had some story they told themselves that would comfort them and would get them through such a huge loss, a story that would help them get out of bed in the morning when the weight of their loss would pin them down.
John and Ben were quiet in the back. What they all knew well was this: Life was fragile. And sometimes it was unspeakably sad.
Two blocks down the street from Mike and Cassie’s house, Lisa Carlucci pretended to be asleep as Cody quietly dressed next to the bed. She didn’t take it personally that he was sneaking out. She understood. She’d done it herself. And truthfully, she was relieved. She didn’t want to have to look at him in the light of day and see how much this hadn’t meant to him. It was bad enough to have seen it in the dark. She wasn’t mad at him, though. She had chosen this situation knowing full well what it was and what it wasn’t.
She felt discomfort in her core, a feeling that was hard to name, but something like anger and something like emptiness. She waited to hear Cody descend the stairs, no doubt bristling with fear that he would wake her every time a stair squeaked. She actually smiled just thinking of his inner terror. She listened to the front door open and then close. Only then did she open her eyes. She was thankful that he shut the door quietly because she didn’t want any of the guys next door to look out and see him leave. For that same reason, she was also thankful he had arrived on foot and left the same way.
A shaft of light fell through a crack in the curtains and landed on a bronze crucifix near her door. It had been her greatgrandfather’s.
She hadn’t gone to confession in years, but suddenly she believed it might feel good. She thought about what she would say and realized it wasn’t the actual sex she felt was the great sin. It was the fact that she had lost faith. She had lost faith that God had a better plan for her when it came to love, and as a result, she had settled. She needed to repent for treating her body as if it were a cheap motel instead of a temple.
She crawled out of bed, paused near the door, made the sign of the cross, kissed her hand and gently touched the crucifix, and said a prayer pledging a faith forgotten, pledging change. She walked to the bathroom and paused to look at herself in the full-length mirror. She wrapped her arms around herself and said aloud, “What am I doing? This isn’t a Holiday Inn.” Although she was sleepy and wanted to return to her warm bed, she didn’t like smelling like Cody and sex. So instead of going back to bed, she took a hot shower.
She emerged from the shower wondering what God’s better plan might look like, because truthfully, she didn’t want to get married. Women who got married got screwed. She saw it all the time. It wasn’t just that she wanted the freedom to pull the cord when it got bad without having to go through an expensive divorce and possibly losing her house. She never wanted to be that dependent in the first place. And if she had to wait for marriage to have sex with integrity, she would never have sex again. That wasn’t going to work, either. There had to be a way to have a healthy sex life, integrity, and maybe even love, and remain a sovereign person.
Lisa returned to her bed and contemplated her musky sheets but decided it was too big a task to change them in the middle of the night. Instead, she put on flannel pajamas to protect her clean body. But before she crawled back in, she sat for a moment on the edge of her bed and peeked out the window at the trailer next door, hoping to verify that all of her buddies had been asleep and hadn’t seen Cody leave.
The Kennel was their name for this trailer and all its crazy additions built on. It got its name from its one-to-one human- to-dog ratio. Hans had a candle lit in his window. So did Tom, which was how they let one another and any other potential visitors know that they were “entertaining.”
When she was in seventh grade and Tom was in eighth, his friend had approached her between classes and said, “Tom wants to know if you want to go with him.”
“Go with him where?” she’d asked.
“You know, just go with him. Be his girlfriend,” his friend had explained.
Lisa had shrugged. “I guess that would be all right,” she’d said, somewhat indifferent.
But later that night, she imagined him holding her hand, imagined slow dancing with him at the next school dance, and even kissed her pillow, imagining it was him. By the next morning, she was downright mad for him. She took extra time doing her hair. She picked out her clothes carefully. And, pleased with the fruits of her efforts, she went to school feeling excited. She had attracted an older boyfriend—a really cool older boyfriend.
She casually walked to her locker, keeping her eye out for him, a little disappointed that he hadn’t waited for her somewhere nearby. She thought he would hold her hand as he walked her to homeroom. That, near as she could figure, was what going together involved. Finally she gave up, took her books for her first two classes and her folder out of her locker, and started walking. When she had almost reached her class, she saw Tom holding Deanna Smith’s hand. He even gave her a little peck on the lips before they parted. Deanna went into the classroom next to Lisa’s. Tom looked up and for a split second noticed Lisa. She saw fear and shame wash over him as he quickly walked in the other direction, avoiding her.
He avoided her for the next three years, until he was a junior and she was a sophomore. He asked her to watch him in the basketball game and then go to the dance with him afterward. And she told him to suck it. Of course that, not what happened in junior high, was what Tom told people when asked how long he and Lisa had been friends. When Tom told the story, it was funny, and he always ended it by saying, “And that was the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship, my only real friendship with a woman, because it was the only one I was powerless to screw up.” Lisa, however, didn’t tell either story. She pretended she didn’t remember.
On Lisa’s nightstand sat two photographs in frames, facedown. One was of her parents, and the other was of her grandparents. She always turned them over when she had a guy over. Now she reached over and carefully set them back up. As she looked into her mother’s eyes, she wondered whether being a wife had been worth it overall. She wondered what her mother might have given up to take that path, what other dreams she might have had, wondered how she reconciled staying with a man who had been unfaithful, wondered whether he still was. And then she wondered how her mother might have fared from a life like hers, from a lifetime of being unloved in that particular way, a lifetime of agreeing to be disrespected by men with intimacy issues who would never ask her to sacrifice her freedom, a lifetime of bad choices and freedom. Was it really freedom? On one hand, yes. If she felt like going somewhere, she went somewhere. If she felt like eating ice cream for dinner, she ate ice cream for dinner. If she felt like buying new ski boots, she bought new ski boots. She didn’t have to run anything by anyone. She loved that. But there was another way in which it didn’t feel so free.
She looked at her grandmother’s face and wondered how sad it would make her to know that not only was she no one’s wife, she dated men who wouldn’t even call her their girlfriend, men she didn’t want to call her boyfriend. Maybe friends with benefits. But did they even qualify as friends? Not really. Fuck buddies. She nodded slightly. Yep, that’s what she was. That was her title. Fuck buddy. Free—overall, yes. But respectable? No, not really. She felt shame looking at her grandparents’ faces knowing they had wanted more than this for her. They had wanted her to be valued and to think enough of herself to demand that.
“It was the price of freedom,” she whispered to the photograph. “Don’t judge me,” knowing full well it wasn’t her grandparents who were judging her. The scent of Cody haunted her and inflamed her shame. She got out of bed, stripped off the sheets, and walked down the hall to the linen closet for new ones.
SNOW REPORT FOR NOVEMBER 18 Current temperature: 28F, high of 34F at 3 p.m., low of 20F at 4 a.m. Clear skies, winds out of the southwest at 15 mph. 35“ at the base, 51” at the summit. 0“ new in the last 24 hours. 1" of new in the last 48.
Jill drove through the night and into the morning. The vast prairie finally gave way to the rise of the Rockies. The white bark of the mostly bare aspens glowed in the low November sun. As the road slipped between two large mountains, Jill finally felt safe, as if she had been running from something and had just ducked around a corner.
She ascended higher and higher until she was among the snow-covered peaks, finally making it to the turnoff for the town of Sparkle. A mountain everyone called Big Daddy separated the little town from the main highway, and as she drove around it, she looked for tracks down the waterfall area. There were three sets down an impossibly steep and narrow chute. Crazy, she thought.
She crept higher on the windy road, all the way to the sign welcoming her to Sparkle, elevation 8,896 feet, population 1,284. Behind the historic little mining town towered Sparkle Mountain, covered in snow and striped with ski runs. People that looked like little dots traversed down.
Even though technically Midland was her hometown and Austin was her home, she found herself thinking, I’m home. I made it home. She inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly.
To her left, two women, one in a fur coat and the other in large fur boots, walked into an art gallery. They were clearly guests at the historic lodge near the base of the mountain. Just beyond them, a man wearing ski pants patched with duct tape walked into the drugstore. He was a local. She smiled in spite of her circumstances, having forgotten how comical the polarity of Sparkle could be.
She crept past the three blocks of brick buildings in the historic downtown to see what had changed and what had stayed the same. There were several new cafés and bakeries. Woodall’s Hardware, Dick’s Barber Shop, and the Gold Pan Bar were still there. The brick downtown gave way to another two blocks of businesses in colorful old mining houses before Main Street became residential.
She drove past the little red house that Uncle Howard had rented for them during the two years that she had lived with him here. She had been so frail and thin when she’d first showed up. Uncle Howard had convinced her mom that if Jill moved to Sparkle, she would get interested in skiing and be motivated to eat. The truth was, he understood she needed to be away from her parents in order to feel good enough. Now, here she was again.
After she went off to college, Uncle Howard had moved back into his studio apartment under the lodge at the top of Sparkle Mountain. He was like a hermit or a sage up there, but one who measured the new snow, read the thermometer and wind gauge, made judgments about avalanche danger, and called it all in to be part of the day’s snow report. A short walk away from his apartment was a door that led to the generator room under the lift shack at the top of the Summit Chair, and inside were several shelves of carefully selected books, a table, and two chairs. Uncle Howard was both famous and notorious for this library. She wondered what he would pluck off his shelf and expect her to read this time. He prescribed books for people the way doctors prescribed medicine, and his equivalent of all-purpose aspirin was Siddhartha.
Jill needed sleep. There was no place for her to sleep in his studio and no place to sleep in his library, so she continued on to Lisa’s house. At least Lisa had a couch to offer.
She turned up the next block and stopped in front of the yellow Victorian where Lisa had grown up. Her father had been the head chef and manager of the fancy Italian restaurant at the Sparkle Lodge, but after he died a couple years ago, Lisa’s mother moved to Florida and sold the house to her. It hadn’t changed much, though the aspens in the yard had grown significantly. Next door, the old trailer Lisa always found to be such an eyesore looked to be in even greater disrepair, with even more additions built onto it, and an even greater number of vehicles parked in the front yard.
Before she got out of the car, Jill took her phone out of her purse and opened it. A long list of missed calls from David popped up. Jill’s twenty-four hours of not being a missing person were surely almost up, but she still didn’t want to talk to him. He had sent texts as well. She read the last one:
I’m calling the police now. The bank called to report some unusual credit card activity, so I canceled them. Someone used your card to buy a car! I’m so worried that you were mugged and abducted or killed. Please, Jill, if you get this message, please let me know you’re alive.
She wasn’t sure what to do. She figured if the police were going to be involved, she’d better set the record straight. She hit reply and texted, “The Lexus died. It’s in the shop. They should have called you yesterday. I bought the car with our credit card. I wasn’t mugged. I’m alive. I just needed to leave.”
She looked through her purse and found $48.43 in cash. She took her now worthless cards out of her wallet. There was no way to get replacements. Replacements could be sent only to her billing address. She wasn’t sure how she was going to work this problem. She would figure something out. For now, she called her supervisor at work and asked that her last paycheck be sent to Lisa’s in Colorado. It would have only three-quarters of a day’s worth of wages on it, but every penny counted now.
She took a big breath, stepped out of her car, and walked up the little sidewalk to Lisa’s porch. The sun had melted the sidewalk, thank goodness, because she had no boots—just her nurse’s shoes. A little clothesline stretched between two porch posts, and on it hung an unlikely combination of ugly gray wool socks and lacy thongs, all black except for one, which was magenta. She hesitated for a moment and peeked through the window in Lisa’s door. Walls were missing. Clothes were strewn all over furniture. It was dark. She wasn’t sure if Lisa was still sleeping or if she had already left for the day. She knocked quietly.
Lisa woke up and for a moment wondered if Cody had returned, if he realized he wanted something more, if he had an epiphany about intimacy and his feelings for her. Immediately, she realized that was stupid girl thinking.
She got out of bed, descended the stairs, and approached the door. Slowly she began to recognize the face through her window. It was Jill. A small smile started on Lisa’s face and then turned to concern as she looked more closely. She opened the door.
Jill smiled uncomfortably. “Hey, girl,” she said as she held up Lisa’s letter. “I just drove out of hell.”
“You look like shit,” Lisa said tenderly, and gave her a big hug. She kept one arm around Jill and guided her in. “You came to the right place. I know just what you need.”
Lisa guided Jill past the gutted walls, explaining, “Yeah, I kind of ran out of money before the remodel was finished. Pardon the ugly chaos.”
Together, they walked into the kitchen. Since Jill had seen it last, Lisa had painted the ceiling turquoise and the walls yellow. A few pots of Christmas cactus with bright red buds ready to bloom sat on top of the cupboards.
Jill sat on a stool at the counter while Lisa reached in the fridge and brought out some celery stalks, which she washed, cut, and put on a little plate in front of Jill.
“So, what’s up, girl?” Lisa asked. She could guess; she’d never had a good feeling about David. “I mean, you’re dressed a little oddly for a trip to Colorado.”
“I . . . um . . . lost the baby six weeks ago.”
“Oh,” Lisa said, feeling the air leak out of her. “Oh, Jilly.” She crossed the kitchen to hug her old friend. “Oh, Jilly, I’m so, so sorry,” she said without letting go.
“And then yesterday, I found this,” she continued, and pulled out her camera phone. Lisa looked at the display. “You remember David. I don’t know who that is.”
Lisa studied the picture and then looked back at Jill. In an attempt to hide the full level of her disgust, she simply shook her head and put the kettle on for tea. “So what did you do?”
“I just snuck off. I couldn’t deal with it. I couldn’t deal with explanations or apologies. That wasn’t something he could explain. That wasn’t something he could just apologize for.” Jill took another deep breath. “I’ve been thinking maybe the best thing for both of us is to just let go and let each other start a new life.”
Lisa remembered overhearing her grandmother telling her mom that men were weak animals when it came to resisting temptation and that indiscretions must be forgiven—they were not uncommon. At the time, her mother had been sobbing. Although Lisa couldn’t remember exactly how old she was, she was old enough to vow never to sign on for that kind of suffering by getting married.
She walked behind Jill, put her arms around her, and said, “I love you.”
Jill put her hands on Lisa’s arms and shut her eyes. “Please help me,” she whispered. “I don’t know what to do now.”
“Of course, Jilly Bean,” Lisa assured her, and rocked her in her arms.
Jill opened her eyes and noticed a faded newspaper picture on the wall of the two of them, arms up, facing each other, jumping victoriously after some race their senior year, jubilant. “I can’t imagine ever feeling like that girl again,” she said, and pointed to it.
“No,” Lisa said. “But you won’t always feel this bad, either. The good times don’t last and the bad times don’t last.”
“You’ve been hanging out with Uncle Howard,” Jill said.
Lisa laughed a little. “Hey, listen, I’ve got to go teach the next generation of Olympians how not to fall down. We’ll figure out your life when I get home from work. Take a nap. You need sleep. Don’t worry. It’s going to be okay.”
Jill followed Lisa back into the living room, where she pulled out the ancient hide- a-bed and then climbed the now exposed staircase to the linen closet for bedding. They made the bed together, and Jill crawled in. Lisa kissed her on the forehead.
“Thanks, Lisa,” Jill said.
“Everything’s going to be okay,” Lisa assured her again, and then walked out the door.
When Jill woke from her nap, she found her uncle Howard sitting in the rocking chair on Lisa’s porch. She opened the door and he stood. “I heard you were back,” he said.
Jill looked up at him, at his gentle face, at the red Norwegian sweater he had been wearing for the last twenty years, and at the hat with the pom-pom on top that he’d picked up in Whistler sometime in the mid 1980s. His ever- present backpack sat at his feet. Aside from looking a little older, he hadn’t changed at all, and something about looking at him made Jill feel she’d made it to safety. She burst into tears.
“Hey,” he said as he put his arms around her. “Hey, now. It’s going to be okay. You’re here now.”
Jill tried to tell him that she had lost the baby and that her husband was cheating on her, but all the sounds that came out of her were indecipherable.
“I know,” Uncle Howard said. “Lisa told me the story. I’m sorry.” He hugged her a little longer, until her sobs quieted, and then said, “Let’s go inside. I have something to make you strong.”
They walked into Lisa’s house and sat at the counter. Uncle Howard opened his backpack and took out a package of wild Alaskan smoked salmon. “To give you strength, determination, the ability to make it past any obstacle, and to affirm your homing device,” he said.
Uncle Howard believed that people ingested the energy from food as well as the nutrients. He had been a world-class mountain climber in the 1970s and had come across many cultures in his travels. Their belief systems had all blended into Uncle Howard’s unique set of truths.
Next, he pulled out some Jarlsberg cheese. “From Norway,” he explained. “Norwegians are unstoppable. I suspect this cheese is their secret to health and longevity.” Finally, he pulled out a whole-grain baguette. “Made here, in Sparkle, by Mari Wallace, yoga teacher extraordinaire. May it fill you with her sense of peace and her playful spirit.” He took a little cutting board out of his backpack as well as a pocketknife and began to slice the cheese.
They tore off pieces of bread and fish and assembled them with the cheese slices. As Jill ate hers, she thought of all of Uncle Howard’s good wishes. “Thank you,” she said.
“Are you drinking enough water?” Uncle Howard asked.
Jill shook her head.
“That’s the best way to get the energy and the strength of Sparkle back into you.” He stood, found a glass, and poured some tap water for Jill. “Plus, you can’t think clearly if you’re dehydrated.”
Jill smiled and drank the water.
“More?” he asked.
“No, thanks.” Guilt washed over her. “I’m sorry I didn’t come to visit all these years. It just was so hard to step out of daily life . . . my work, David’s work, building a life there in Austin. I never wanted to go to my parents’ house for Christmas, so on those rare years I didn’t have to work that day, we always went back east to visit his. I feel bad that I didn’t assert with him just how much you meant to me, how you were the dad I wished I had. But you know, I didn’t really want to bring him here. Isn’t that funny? I just knew he didn’t belong here. And it felt disloyal to go anywhere without him. I realize now that was stupid.”
“You know, Jill, the beauty of the uncle- niece relationship is overlooked in our cultural paradigm.” With Uncle Howard, she often had to ignore his words and just look at his expression to understand what he was trying to say. He was trying to say he forgave her. “And, you know, it’s not like I ever made it to Austin. I don’t know where all those years went.”
“You sent me a nice postcard from time to time, though. I always meant to answer, but it seemed I was always in a rush to work or to the store or to home. I feel bad about that.” She had kept all of his cards, each with a brief philosophical message written on it.
He smiled sweetly. “Hear from my sister lately?”
“Mom wrote a few weeks ago to tell me she knows how it feels to lose a child because when I left the Church it was a spiritual death to her and that she cries herself to sleep every night because I won’t be with them in heaven.”
He winced. “The good old Mormon Church, bringing comfort to the masses. I’m sorry,” he said, shaking his head. “It wasn’t easy, you know, for us growing up. Your grandpa was a raging alcoholic. Your mom found that church because she wanted to spare you our experience. If you can, see her in the light of compassion. See her for her good intentions, for her resolve not to repeat the pattern. If that doesn’t work, see her for the bruised little girl she was. Just don’t for a minute let any part of you question your worth in God’s eyes.”
“It’s hard, you know, not to wonder what I did to deserve this,” Jill said.
“You didn’t do anything, Jill. You’re a good person. Don’t question that. Clear it. If you can, just believe that relationship served its purpose for a time, and then you outgrew it, so the universe helped move you out of there so you could authentically live the next chapter of your life.”
Jill knew she was supposed to be comforted, but the prospect of starting a brand- new chapter of her life terrified her. “Oh, my God, Uncle Howard, what am I going to do now?”
“Well, you’re going to stay here. You’re going to get strong. And then, when your mind is as empty as your glass, you’ll know what to do.”
Jill nodded, ate her last two bites, and wondered what the odds were of her mind ever being empty enough for Uncle Howard’s level of clarity.
Uncle Howard packed up the rest of his food, his cutting board, and his pocketknife, looked at his watch, and said, “I have to get back up on the mountain to get ready for the storm that’s coming in tonight. But I’m just a phone call away if you need anything.”
Jill saw him to the door and gave him a hug. “I love you, Uncle Howard,” she said. “You’re my rock.”
“I love you, too. I’ll find you tomorrow,” he replied.
Lisa remembered making Jill toasted cheese sandwiches back in the day, not long after she first arrived in Sparkle years ago. Jill was the skinniest girl Lisa had ever seen, and not in a good way at all. After four months and a hundred toasted cheese sandwiches, Jill started to look somewhat normal, and being Italian, Lisa found that satisfying. Now, they resumed their old spots, Jill on the stool at the counter and Lisa in the kitchen slicing cheese. It was comforting.
“So I was thinking,” Lisa began, but a knock on the back door interrupted them, and without waiting for Lisa to answer, Eric and Hans stormed through the kitchen to the living room.
“Don’t mind us,” said Eric, the shorter of the two. He was by no means short—only in comparison with Hans, who was nearly six feet eight. Both had brown hair and mischievous smiles.
Hans went straight for the DVD player. “For my birthday, Eric got me some tasty new snow porn.”
“It’s possible Hans was under the influence last night and wondered what would come on TV if he put a Kraft Single in our DVD player,” Eric explained.
Hans corrected him. “No, dude. That was you. You thought it would reveal the secrets of plastic.”
“Eric, Hans, meet Jill,” Lisa said. “Jill, these are my trashy neighbors—”
“Hey! I resemble that!” Eric interrupted. Then he extended a hand to Jill and said, “Pleased to meet you,” in his most charming way.
“That’s Slick Eric, and the birthday boy is Hans.”
They flashed Jill sexy smiles.
“You actually used to babysit Hans,” Lisa said. “Remember the Sorenson kid?”
“Oh, yeah,” Jill replied, and smiled.
“My penis has grown since then,” Hans said.
“Super,” Jill replied.
“Eric is the head honcho of the cat crew. Hans drives cat, too. They groom slopes all night, but sometimes ski with us in the morning before they go home to get their beauty sleep. They live in the ugly trailer next door and got into this habit last year when they didn’t have their own TV,” Lisa explained.
“Not true,” Eric said. “We had a TV. We just liked yours better.”
“Size matters,” added Hans.
“Why aren’t you at work?” Lisa asked them.
“Big storm predicted, so we’re all pulling the late-late shift,” Eric said.
“Big storm . . .’ ” Hans said with a big smile, and rubbed his hands together.
Then Hans and Eric turned and walked into the living room. From the kitchen, Jill and Lisa could hear the music from their movie.
Lisa took out two cans of Health Valley soup and poured them into a pan. “Sorry. It’s not Campbell’s like we used to eat. Your uncle Howard caught me buying Campbell’s and made me switch brands,” she said. “Something about angry chickens.”
“Yeah, you can’t be eating angry, conventionally raised chickens.” Jill laughed. “What were you thinking?”
Just as Lisa put the sandwich on a plate in front of Jill, Jill’s phone beeped once. Jill picked it up and checked the text message. “Listen to this: ‘Jill, I don’t understand why you left. I see from Visa that you’ve purchased gasoline from here to Colorado. Please come home, Jill. Talk to me.’ ”
“Oh, poor David,” Lisa said, dripping with sarcasm. “He doesn’t understand why you left.”
Jill hit a few buttons and said, “There. I just sent him the picture. That should help clear it up for him. Hey, what’s your
P.O. box? I’m going to ask him to send me a box of my stuff and some money.”
“One thirty-eight. Tell him to be generous.”
“I smell melted cheese!” Hans called out from the other room.
“Woman, where’s my supper?” Eric shouted.
“Eat shit, you guys!” Lisa shouted back. Although she shouted it in jest, her chest felt lighter, as if a pressure valve had just released some of the anger she was feeling toward Jill’s husband. She turned her attention back toward Jill. “So, I’ve been thinking about some of your choices,” she said as she poured the soup into two bowls.
“I need to work. The bank notified David of unusual account activity, so, thinking my wallet had been stolen by the person who must have kidnapped me, he canceled the card and changed our account information. I’ve got a little less than fifty dollars to live on while that gets straightened out, if it does.”
“So, how about a winter working on the mountain? Ski patrol?”
“You have to walk on water to get that job,” Jill said.
“Usually,” Lisa replied. “But a spot just opened up.”
“Well, my body still feels weak from everything it’s been through. I couldn’t do the skiing part for a while, but I’m definitely capable of wrapping knees and handing out bags of ice.”
Lisa walked over to the kitchen window and looked out. “Tom, the patrol director, lives with Slick Eric and Hans over there in the Kennel. . . .”
“One-to-one human-to-dog ratio,” Lisa explained. “Promise me you’ll never go there.” She could just imagine Tom or Eric smelling Jill’s weakness and preying on it.
“Twist my arm,” Jill replied.
“You remember Tom? He was a senior when we were juniors? Blond hair . . . sort of looked like Shaggy on Scooby- Doo . . .?”
Jill nodded. “Oh, yeah, we looked for his tongue once when he thought he bit it off during a big wipeout, remember?”
“Oh, yeah.” Lisa laughed and poured herself a glass of water.
Just then, Hans walked into the kitchen on his way to the bathroom.
Lisa blocked the doorway. “Oh no, you don’t, sprinkler system. Go pee all over your own bathroom floor,” she said.
“Um, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Hans replied.
“Seriously, the small lake you left in there last time—the lake so large I needed swim fi ns to cross it? Never again, pal. Go piss at your own house.”
Hans walked out the back door.
Lisa picked up the phone and dialed. “Tom Cat. Lisa. Do you copy? We’ve got a twenty- six in my kitchen. Over.” Then she hung up. “Watch this,” she said.
Lisa and Jill both looked out the window as Tom bolted out of the trailer in flip-flops, long underwear, a parka, and a hat, followed by Stout, his German shepherd, and ran to Lisa’s back door, which she opened so he could run in without breaking stride.
Jill sat on a stool rubbing her neck, which had been bothering her since she woke up on the pullout couch. Lisa greeted him by saying, “Twenty-six seconds. Excellent. Hence the name.” Then she turned to Jill. “Twenty-six is code for hot chick.”
Tom faked an expression of disbelief and looked at Jill.
“She’s lying. It’s code for neck injury. Good call, Lisa. It’s always good to be on the safe side. Clearly she needs help.” He moved behind Jill and began to massage her neck.
Good God,Lisa thought. He wastes no time.
Stout turned circles on the mat next to the back door, lay down, and began to snore loudly. “Thomas, this is Jill, Howard’s niece. Remember her? She helped you look for your tongue that time you thought you bit it off. She raced with me.”
“Oh yeah!” He turned Jill’s stool gently to look at her. “I remember you!”
Lisa continued, “Well, you remember she used to be a pretty decent skier. She hasn’t skied in years—long story—and she recently had surgery, but she is a nurse. Could you stick her in the first-aid room? If she was there, the rest of you could get in extra turns. . . .”
Tom appeared to consider Lisa’s proposal and finally spoke. “Sure. I’m down a man. Travis is still in intensive care.”
Lisa explained, “He was doing some avalanche control work at the top of Super Bowl. He was ski cutting—you know, where they ski across the slope to start a slide? And anyway, he went down with it. Jason was with him, right?”
“Yeah, Jason dug him out while I got the sled, and then we got him down to the base where he could be airlifted. There was still some hangfire, so it was too sketchy to airlift him from the site.”
Jill looked confused.
“Hangfire is snow that’s left in place at the top of the slide path,” Lisa explained.
“Very unstable,” Tom added.
“Any updates on him?” Lisa asked.
“Just that he’s stable now,” Tom answered. He turned to Jill and said, “Yeah, he didn’t get completely buried. His skis popped off. But he got slammed into a rock. Broken ribs, punctured lung, compound fracture of his femur, fractured pelvis. So sure, you’re hired. Meet me at the FAR—the fist- aid room— tomorrow at one.”
“Thanks,” Jill said.
Tom turned to Lisa. “Hey, are we all on for the usual Thanksgiving plan? Same time, same place?”
“We want turkey!” Eric shouted from the next room.
“Turkey!” Hans chimed in, too.
“Same time, same place,” Lisa answered.
“How’s your neck now?” Tom asked Jill.
“Better,” Jill admitted.
But Lisa was cautious. “Jill, what ever you do, do not look directly into the snake charmers’ eyes. Tom, Hans, and Slick Eric have long philosophical discussions about who went home with the biggest boobs at the bar the night before.”
“Lisa,” Tom said with offense, “honestly, these vicious lies really hurt.” For a moment, Jill believed him.
“Oh?” Lisa began. “Vicious lies?” She opened the door to the broom closet. On the inside of the door hung game boards for Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders that had been there ever since Lisa could remember. “Look, Jill, Exhibit A of our arrested development. We’ve been playing this game for how long now?” she asked Tom.
“Since I moved in about fifteen years ago,” Tom answered. He turned to Jill and explained further, “I was running low on funds and Lisa took pity on me and was feeding me. The trade-off was that I had to listen to her stories about all these guys who had a better shot at her than me. I was having trouble keeping all of Lisa’s suitors straight, so she dug her childhood games out of a closet to accommodate my inclination toward being more of a visual learner.”
“Shall we catch up, Tom Cat? Here is Ranger Mark.” She pointed to a picture of Ranger Mark’s face that she had cut out of a photograph, peeled it off the board, moved him to the final destination of Candy Land, and stuck him back on the board with gummy tack. “Mark got a whole lot of shugga in Candy Land this summer. Mmm! And Medium Dan called yesterday. Move one.” She pinched another face off the starting point on the board and moved him to the first spot.
“Medium Dan?” Tom asked.
“Yeah. Remember how I dated Big Dan and Little Danny? So this one is just Medium Dan. Don’t ever let him know I call him that.” Then she moved a face back to the starting line and off to the side. “This is Good Randy. He blabbed to all his friends about sleeping with me last spring. He’s out. And Bad Randy massaged my shoulders in the hot pool last week. He has very nice hands. Move ahead one. And here’s you. You haven’t even got off the starting line.” She left Cody at the starting line, thinking it best to just keep that a secret.
She knew how to play the part. She knew how to make light of it all, how to make it sound as if her love life was full of fabulous possibilities. But it wasn’t. Every single man on her Candy Land board was limited in some very basic ways.
Tom walked over to the closet door next. Tom never took photographs of any of the women in his life. It led women to believe they were way more important or more permanent than they really were, he said. So rather than cutouts of actual people (with the exception of Lisa), his Chutes and Ladders game was covered with faces cut out of magazines that represented real women in his life. Usually, the real woman and the celebrity had the same first name, but occasionally he picked a celebrity that resembled the real woman. He had also cut out a bed from a Sleep Country advertisement and affixed it to his finish line. Twenty-five or thirty faces were stuck on or below the bed. Several waited at the starting line. His board spoke volumes about the quantity of women in his life and his complete lack of ability to have any kind of true intimacy. Lisa hoped Jill saw it for the damning piece of evidence it was.
As Tom unstuck a face and walked her up a ladder, he said, “Jen wants me to meet her family.” He picked up another face and walked her up a ladder, too. “Jan wants to know where we’re going with— you know—us,” he said with exaggerated hand motions gesturing back and forth, imitating Jan. “Angie told me I was lookin’ good.” He moved a picture of Angelina Jolie forward one. “Sarah’s ape ex- boyfriend threatened to kick my ass if he saw me within a quarter-mile radius of her.” He moved another picture up a ladder. “And a girl with big boobs I met at the bar slept with me last night.” He moved one of the starting-line Pamela Andersons to his bed and stuck a cutout picture of a beer next to her. “Linda. Or Tracy. Stacy. No, Tracy. It was Tracy, I’m pretty sure.”
“Good God, Tom Cat,” Lisa said, “you’re such a mimbo. Hey, I’m sure Jill will be able to help you identify any unusual genital rashes you may develop this year, too. Bonus.”
Jill shook her head and rubbed her eyes. “No.”
Lisa shut the closet door, happy not to look at her game board anymore. A part of her wanted to rip it off the door violently and throw it across the room or, better yet, out the back door, but the bigger part of her didn’t want that kind of attention, didn’t want to explain. Maybe she would just quietly take her game board down at some point.
“All right,” Tom said. “I’m out. Jill, it was a pleasure. See you at the FAR tomorrow at one. I’ll orient you.”
“Take her out for some turns tomorrow!” Eric shouted from the other room. “National Weather Service says ten inches possible tonight!”
Lisa’s face lit up. “Yeah!” she shouted.
Tom turned to Lisa and said, “Lisa baby, I’ve got your ten inches tonight.”
“Noted,” she said, and rolled her eyes.
“Well, my offer stands,” Tom said. “All right, everybody, I’m out.” Stout woke up when Tom opened the door and trotted behind Tom as he jogged back to the trailer.
“Hey, girl, thanks for lining me up with a job like that,” Jill said. “I mean, I know I can’t stay in Sparkle and hide forever, but it feels so good to stay here and hide for a while,”
“Mm,” Lisa replied, watching Tom and thinking of the candle lit in his window last night. What was that feeling in her gut? Contempt? Jealousy? It couldn’t be jealousy. She would never want to be that girl. And “girl” was undoubtedly the operative word. Finally she snapped out of it and said, “This is going to be the best winter you’ve had since you were twenty.”
Copyright © 2012 by Kaya McLaren
Kaya McLaren is also author of On The Divinity of Second Chances and Church of the Dog. She lives and teaches third and fourth graders on the east slope of Snoqualmie Pass in Washington State. When Kaya’s not working, she likes to telemark ski, sit in hot springs, moonlight hike, and play in lakes with her dog, Big Cedar.