Three months after his death the tail end of my car was pulled up to Melissa’s house. The porch was littered with boxes, poorly packed; books and photographs overflowed from them. I insisted on taking them all, in part as an anchor to ground myself with, in part because I feared my stepmother would throw them away or donate them to charity.
It was midmorning, late August in Mississippi, hot and oppressive. Sweat poured down my neck, my back, and into my shorts. The moisture created a distinct line, the shape of my spine. My stepmother reminded me to shut the door every time we brought a new box out. Frugal to the point of annoyance. Each time I carried out a box, I looked back to the house. The house that was never my home. Only on the holidays and the odd summer.
I loaded the boxes. I positioned them carefully, then wove in my malleable belongings like pillows and blankets, making one solid block. There was no space remaining. I tried to force in a few last things; a small shelf decorated with teal blown glass bobbles that belonged to my namesake, a crocheted portrait of birds nesting in a tree, a family heirloom but from whom I could not remember. I asked my sister to keep them for me. I did not say until when. In the moment I did not want to indicate when I would be coming back for good because the truth was, I did not know.
My father’s ashes were the last item I packed. My stepmother asked me if I would like to take the urn. I said no. I thought that my father would not have liked the thing, it being too ornate. My sister kept his ashes in a Hill Brothers’ coffee can. It was purchased after my father pronounced ‘I don’t care what you do to me, put me in a goddamn Hill Brothers’ coffee can.’ I took what I had of him—approximately one third—in a plastic Ziploc bag with the intention of transferring the ashes into a more appropriate receptacle later. I never did.
I needed to put distance between that house, him, my own grief, the version of myself that I would leave there and what I hoped to become.
As I drove out of town all I could smell was Molly. She was my father’s dog. Her foul breath filled the car. I turned off the air conditioning, trying to keep its circulation contained. I rolled down the window and hoped she would stick her head out. She looked up at me, unaware. Molly had come into our home at the time when my mother left. It had been my father, Molly and me for so long. She was the emblem of the relationship I had built with my father over those years in which we had both been abandoned. She had provided us both with comfort. I craved that comfort in his absence. I insisted on taking her. She had been ours.
On that first day, I drove for miles into a western setting sun. I thought that my eyes had never faced into a descending sun for such a long time. They burned. I had to blink to keep my vision clear. The sun fell in the west and blazed through the windows of the car, the vehicle so packed I could not use my rear mirror. I couldn’t look back or perhaps I truly did not want to. I was twenty-three years old. I felt like a child. My father was gone and my home had gone with him.
I crossed the border into South Eastern Montana. As I drove into Billings, I saw refineries erect and defined against deep black sky. They did not light up the dark sky but instead hid the stars with the pollution that they exuded. High above me were towers that burned with yellow bulbs, a city within a city. Some were steady, some blinked intermittently. Tiny puffs of smoke hovered in the distance. The smoke stacks must have been painted dark, as the small clouds seemed to appear from nothing and just as quickly disappeared. Stadium lights projected down into the centre of the industrial landscape, no doubt to provide the night labourers with light. I checked in at a Red Roof Inn, because it was cheap and allowed pets. Slightly unclean and filled with the smell of bleach.
The air was thick with chemicals and the sheets on the mattress scratched at my skin. I held Molly close to me; her acrid breath covered the stench of bleach. My sleep was restless. An embodiment of agitation entered my dreams. Huge, it loomed above me. It whispered cynicism and fear. It was dark and strange and the more I ran from it, the faster it came. I woke early in the morning. I loaded the car and bought a cup of black acidic gas station coffee. I drank it quickly and paid for another.
As I drove from the city, I saw the Rimrocks. Sandstone formations that rose from the earth at a gradual incline then jutted vertically and plateaued. A portrait of the rise and fall of waterways, they were alien, cut from a river that came long before any of our memories.
The altitude rose as I headed farther west into Montana. The plains of the east quickly fell behind the height of the mountains. Native American tribes once retreated into this range in the winter, using them as protection from the biting winds.
I crossed the Missouri River, its origin in the Rocky Mountains, swelling and contracting with the changing of the seasons and the melting of winter. It was broad and deep and blue. Its bed was composed of stones. The shapes of the stones contorted and wavered as the pellucid water flowed over them. It travels two thousand, three hundred and thirty-four miles to empty into the Mississippi. The sun danced on the surface. I thought ‘If I got on a boat here and just let it flow, it would take me back.’
I took the North side exit to enter Missoula. I passed through a tunnel decorated with local graffiti, a foreign language to my eyes. I crossed the Higgins Street Bridge and looked down into the basin of the river. The rocks were exposed grey and cracking, so much more beautiful when covered by the running water. I had travelled two thousand, one hundred, and eighty-five miles.
My first house in Missoula was on South Third Street NW. I moved in during early September. Molly wove around and through my legs as I unloaded boxes from the car and carried them through the front door. She buried her nose in every corner and took in all this unfamiliar space that would now be her home.
I had not brought furniture with me; the car was only packed with what was essential or what I deemed to be so. My books, clothes, and my photographs. I carried my history, but I kept it to myself, hidden in my room, just for me. I knew that I had to try to start over, but I wanted the option to go back.
I bought a ratty couch from a second-hand store owned by the church. I sprayed it with disinfectant and vacuumed it over and over. I eventually covered it with a sheet. I bought a second-hand mattress and placed it on the hardwood floor. Molly would share this bed with me. I used a milk crate as a nightstand and faced the opening outward to serve as a small bookshelf. I placed my books in stacks around the room. Precarious towers. Makeshift surfaces.
The room was painted tangerine. I despised the colour but never asked to change it. To change anything would have felt too permanent. I did not want to become a fixture. The floors were exposed wood. I was not sure what kind. They were scratched and marked. Furniture had been dragged in and out of this home. I wondered if the former tenants also saw it as some sort of halfway house.
I tacked my father’s obituary to the wall. I had written it in May at the time of his death. Along with it I hung a poem my parents received as a wedding present, framed, the paper yellowed. It was an unintentional shrine. I placed my father’s ashes behind the books in the milk crate. I didn’t touch them again until the following spring, the anniversary of his death.
By the summer of 2013 my alcoholism was huge but functional. I had taken a job at a small bakery. It allowed me to keep early hours so my evenings could be given to drinking. I found that I wasn’t able to sleep without the help of a bottle of wine.
One evening I sat up late at one of the local bars. I struck up a conversation with the man next to me. Drunk enough to forget his face, I do not recall our conversation at all. He reminded me later that he was just coming through town, a traveller on his way south from Alaska. I allowed him into my house. He smelled like smouldering wood and sweat. I closed my eyes as the layer of fat on his stomach moved against my abdomen. When he was done I rolled over and fell into sleep. He was gone when I woke the following morning and I was glad. No trace left except for the smell on my sheets, which I washed immediately.
Two weeks later I drove into the mountains with a man I had met when I first arrived in Missoula. He had shown no interest in me until that evening. Up we drove to look out over the city. I held a beer in my hand and he held one between his knees and took long swigs then cracked the seal of another. The uneven road jostled us and I began to feel sick but said nothing. Finally we stopped, we sat on the hood of the car and looked up at the stars. He kissed me, first sweetly then vigorously. He jumped down from the hood and pulled me by the hand. He turned me around, leaned me against the truck, pulled up my skirt, and pushed himself into me. It was quick and silent. When he finished he sat back on the hood of the truck, drank two more beers, then drove me home. After he pulled away I vomited in my front yard. Whether it was from the alcohol or the jostling of the car, or my own disgust with myself I am not sure.
I could not admit my own unhappiness. I was an expert in denial, too scared to ask for help, and too proud to admit that there was something awful happening within me. I was lonelier than I had ever felt and I was allowing myself to drown in it. I became good at hiding these flaws. I found that if I insisted to myself each morning that I was happy, even simply that I was okay, then everyone around me would believe it too. They had not known me before, so why would they expect different. I fabricated aspects of my past. White lies I told myself.
I told stories, ones about my father. I uttered them—trying to mimic his way, the gesticulations and eagerness—then immediately wondered if they were true. I wondered if these stories were the truth of my father or memories that I had invented. I told these stories out of fear. I told these stories to live them again. If they were not repeated they would be forgotten so I searched for opportunities to retell them. I noticed that with each telling a piece disappeared but I was never certain which bit had vanished. I told the stories to try to pull them back to myself and hold tight to them because the truth was that I was beginning to forget.
My one friend, William, lived across the bridge. I often cycled over late at night once I had grown tired of drinking alone. He gave me beer and cooked steaks that he would burn black with butter on the outside and leave bloody in the middle. After we ate, we sat in the back yard. We smoked cigarettes and talked until I would reach my cusp, unable to drink anymore if I wished to return home.
On this evening I listened to the sound of the Clark Fork River as I pedalled toward his home. The river moved rapidly next to me, the water swelled and took over the bank. Snow runoff from the tops of Bitterroot Range. It was still summer although the heat had begun to fade and autumn would settle soon. The evening had cooled but my hair was matted from the day’s sweat. I was a little drunk. I could smell the beer on my breath as I exhaled heavily; my lungs were tight from the pace. I wore a sundress. It was not fitted and flapped behind me, no doubt exposing the tops of my thighs. I wore boots. They were loose around my ankles. My socks were moist with sweat.
I reached the pedestrian bridge to cross from the south to the north side of the city. Its span went four hundred feet across the water and was hung by cables and a single iron tower. The planks of wood groaned as they expanded and contracted with the changing seasons. It was well lit in the evenings, each end illuminated by street lamps.
On most evenings I weaved through the bollards and crossed the bridge giving little attention to anything but my destination. This evening a fading light caught me. I stopped to watch it. Over and over it flickered at me. A short circuit. A disconnect. Flashed then fizzled. It blinked rapidly twelve times then on the thirteenth; the light sustained and irradiated the bright green foliage of the tree behind it. It continued this way, and as I stood straddling my bicycle, the summer night hummed and spoke.
I began to cry. It was the first time I had cried since his funeral. I did not move from the path. Twice every minute I was brought back into the light with the violent flash of the dying bulb. The tears and my sweat mixed. I could not differentiate them, both hot and salty. I waited for a moment then mounted the bike seat and continued to William’s house. Before I knocked on his door, I made sure my cheeks were not streaked. As I stood in his kitchen I told him about the light. I used the word ‘Ethereal’. I tried to make sense not of what I had seen, but rather the word and why it had come to me. I repeated the word as I described it. I did not tell him about my tears.
The following May I took my father’s ashes to the mountains for a second time. It was exactly two years since his death. On this occasion, the snow had melted and the path was so muddy that I moved along with delicate steps as though I were drunk. On my back I carried a bag that held the ashes and the last letter he wrote me. I carried them together as tradition.
I was alone in a forest of thick conifers. I followed the path and the sound of running water. I searched for the sound of water colliding with stone, surging in frothy white. I admired the spring wildflowers as I walked, the softness of their petals and their brilliant colours. I tried to name them like my father taught me but the names evaded me. I plucked one and rubbed the petals between my fingers. The smell was familiar but I could not place it. I dropped the blossom in the mud and continued on.
I listened for movement but there was nothing, just the fidgets of songbirds in the trees and the squelches beneath my feet. I knew I should not be in the forest alone. I had been told there were bears but this day was for my father and me only. There could not be space for others.
I could feel the air become colder; there was a fine mist that settled on my skin as I passed through it. The damp air meant that I was getting close.
I could hear the tumble down of water. It was the sound of many voices, all wanting to be heard. Ahead of me I saw the falls. The water broke over the edge and cascaded down, down many feet before it settled into a slow and wide stream. I sat next to the stream and felt the sun. The stones around me were many shades of blues and purples and reds. I skipped them on the still surface, listened to them skim then sink into the water, watched the undulations as they grew rapidly, expansively, until they disappeared.
I walked up the stream to the base of the falls. I looked up, then placed my right foot carefully before I began to climb. The boulders were slick and mossy. I was careful with my step, moving on the balls of my feet like my father taught me. I stayed low as I climbed up and up until I reached the top. There I stood straight and looked out from the height. From this vantage I could see the Swans, still capped with snow. I thought it was a romantic name for a mountain range.
I reached in to the bag and pulled out the letter. I read it slowly and in a whisper. I said the words aloud for myself, ‘I close this letter without writing to you about the future or the past. Those things are very much in front of you and very much behind you at this time. What I will tell you is that you should look to the future without worrying about seeing anything. Whatever you think it is, is probably something else. You are filled with a love of life that is brave and loud and alive with a furious desire to touch the things you sense are beyond the frontier of the moment. You are a remarkable child. I know-I know, but I am your father and you will always be my daughter and my child.’ I was pulled back to the mornings that my father waited for me to wake. I was pulled back to the nights that I spent in the hospital, a chair next to his bed, my hand slid beneath his. I began to cry. From the bag I pulled the ashes. I took just a small amount in the palm of my hand. I released my father into the breeze and watched the silver grey dust rain down on the water. It carried my father down, down, and away from me. That night I did not dream.