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Judith Moore returns to Ellensburg, Washington

A memory of summer

I discovered, sitting on the rug by the door, hugging a dog who repeatedly licked my nose, that I was empty of feeling for him.  - Image by David Diaz
I discovered, sitting on the rug by the door, hugging a dog who repeatedly licked my nose, that I was empty of feeling for him.

Heading into the city from the airport, the taxi driver points out a clutch of long-haired vagrants walking past the piers. Bedrolls and packs are lashed onto their backs. A young-faced man, haloed by wild yellow curls, skirts around them to the front of the pack. He turns to face his companions and begins to walk backward. He is playing a wooden flute. The piping penetrates the closed cab. Three men, dressed like scarecrows, their packs and blankets bobbing above their heads, join hands to form a circle and twirl, slowly, then faster and faster. Shaking his head, the taxi driver says to me, “They all jus’ lookin’ for their yesterdays.”

So that was it! I hadn't known. Then a taxi driver told me. I’d been gone two weeks, from California, where I’d lived two years. 1 didn't understand where I’d been. I didn't know why I went. I wish I’d talked to that taxi driver before I left. 1 wish I'd known.

We ignore the subject of return. Nobody writes about how to go back over old ground. Ours is a mobile society. Going back is transgression. Return is taboo. As if a cat backtracked to its mess. Prevailing wisdom emphasizes the present. “Make a fresh start. Forget the past.” But there’s always something or someone “back there,” niggling. There has to be. Anyone who moves on had a reason to leave, even if that reason is nothing — no work, no friends, no housing. You leave for a reason. Even if something inside you sent you off, what it was still gnaws at you the way a long-toothed rat gnaws cheese parings. You can’t go home again. But you want to, and given the chance, you do.

You may still detest the local politics. You may hate the people, or a person, or the climate. You may hate snow. You will have forgotten a lot. But you don’t get over the ground.

Each returnee pleads a special case. My father, when he heard I was returning, wrote, “I would not have considered going back after your mother divorced me.” But he had gone back. At the time he had told us, “I wanted to see, once more, the house where I was born.” Now I said, ‘‘I’m looking for summer.”

Before I pulled up in front of the two-story house I’d lived in and — twice — painted brown, I’d already driven past the doctor’s office where I learned I had a lump in my breast, past the clinic where the lump was removed and looking at it, I had said, “It looks like a piece of chicken fat,” past the gray shack where I’d seen a porcupine throw quills into a yowling Irish setter, past the streetlights where I’d watched a dozen seasons’ snowfalls sift down through the yellow light, where I’d watched ash from Mt. St. Helens drift down, looking like snow but smelling like sulphur. Sighting the doctor’s sign, the Heavenly Blue morning glories vining up the walls of the gray shack, returned the past. Each memory came in an unbroken chunk. I was in my memory, but the I of my memory was no longer the me driving past.

Nobody tells you how to go back. When it first struck me that I wanted to, I didn’t even know what it was.

Nobody tells you how to go back. When it first struck me that I wanted to, I didn’t even know what it was. Out of the blue California sky, it hit: the sudden, apparently spontaneous inclination, which felt like falling in love, but wasn’t. I told myself it would pass. I said I was tired. I needed a vacation. I told myself I was only looking for, hankering after, real summer of the old-fashioned Midwestern heat wave variety. But it was more than highs in the high nineties, more than days as slow as a low river, that drew me back. I was hungry for more than watermelon so ripe the first stab cracks it. I was about to become another of those vagrants, wild hair, dragging a bedroll, looking for yesterday.

It seems, in retrospect, to have happened fast. “Celebrate me home,” Kenny Loggins sang one morning on the radio. “Play me a song I’ll always remember.” I couldn’t believe what I’d heard. I bought the cassette. I played, studied, then replayed that one song. Then I bought the ticket, shaded my eyes from the brass-band glare of the California sky, and scuttled gratefully into a DC-8. I had Loggins playing into my ears and I felt happy.

What was I leaving as I flew back north? Well, it won’t seem like much to you. Two years before I’d rented a room with two windows to the west and one to the south. I bought a cheap radio and turned it on. I tried all the stations. For the first time in my life I was by myself. I liked it. After the first year I bought bamboo shades. But it still wasn’t much. Someone opened my door, looked in, said, “This is a Bedouin’s existence.” It is. Hotplate. Cup-of-Soup. Change of clothes. But it had the virtue of being a life I could walk across without every square block evoking memories, a life whose store windows didn’t show me back a three-act play starring myself.

Three hours after leaving California the Washington coast came up in the window: Seattle and the San Juans; Bainbridge and Vashon Islands. It was late afternoon. The rain had pulled back up into the sky, and off to the east, out of Elliott Bay, by God, a double rainbow arched up. Loggins was pleading, “Please celebrate me home, so I can make believe I’ve never gone.” At the airport meeters and greeters, wrapped in still-damp steaming rain slickers, grinned and waved and kissed.

Soon I was driving past Seattle, heading 105 miles into central Washington. Interstate 5 loops through the Cascades, a range of picture-postcard mountains. The traffic was light. I rewound, replayed Loggins across Snoqualmie Pass. There, at 3500 feet, I-5 begins to drop down the eastern Cascade foothills into Kittitas County. At the county line, an aw-shucks Western movie vista, you’d swear you’ve driven into Montana 600 miles too soon.

Black basalt lies right under the tufted bunchgrass. The tufts grow through the gray ash blown out of Mt. St. Helens’ first big one. The hard, dense volcanic basalt stands vertically, ebony and dramatic and looming: a badlands.

“But no one divorced me" I had told my father when he remonstrated with me for going back. My father called that “nit-picking.” I’d packed and gone. I’d left the pantry, there in the brown house in the middle of black basalt and ash; I’d left it stacked with bread-and-butter pickles and peach preserves and apple butter pressed from apples off the trees in the front yard. I had not replanted the dahlia tubers, not separated the peonies or bent the stems of white cosmos down for winter. I had not mulched. I had taken suitcases, a few books, and walked away from twenty years.

So I was five miles out of town on the rise. The seven o’clock westering sun hit the brick east facings on the four-block downtown and the one-hundred-year-old university buildings. I slowed my rented Toyota to a putter. What had been blurred for me in California by being only a memory now was out there. This was the real thing. My eyes ate it up. It burned going down, like whiskey. Driving downhill, I peered further out over the green valley, twenty-five miles long and ten miles wide. I looked past the town water tower thick with the numbers of years — 1983, 1976 — high school classes had painted on it, past the clock tower, past the old city hall to Manashtash Ridge, a cordillera of hills forming the valley’s south and west walls. I felt home begin to melt in my mouth. I’d go up there tomorrow. I’d take a six-pack. I’d stretch out. I’d play Kenny Loggins. I’d walk under the Douglas fir and cottonwood and alder. I’d walk under the shadows that dapple the ankle-deep carpeting, and I’d sink into the mulching, moldering evergreen needles, the damp leaves and dry lichens. I’d be careful not to slip on the soft moss.

Even if I were quiet, I’d likely not see the elk and deer scuffle down below timberline. But I knew, from rare times, having watched, that the dark chocolate eyes look up and the thick movie-star lashes blink when they hear the flapping overflights of red-tailed hawks or the occasional vulture.

I could cool the beer in the creek where, after coming down over a shallow riffle, the cold water makes a hard right turn and runs against a basalt cliff, forming a narrow, deep slot. Then the water fans out into a broad flat, twenty feet wide and a hundred feet long. I could watch as, during a late afternoon mayfly hatch, fifty cutthroat trout methodically nip insects out of the surface film.

I had held the trout’s slippery throat, tightly, then knocked its head on a rock jutting out over the noisy creek.

I could sit on the same rock where for the first time I’d had blood on my hands that wasn’t from raw hamburger or a paring knife cut. I had held the trout’s slippery throat, tightly, then knocked its head on a rock jutting out over the noisy creek. The eye looked up. I rapped the head on the shiny hump of granite, rapped it repeatedly, fiercely, as in the last frenzied moments of sex. The water plashed down over the glinting rocks. The water gurgled, made swallowing, gulping, choking sounds.

Another two miles east I-5 begins to follow the Yakima River downhill between West Manashtash Ridge and Horse Heaven Hills. I was closing in. The sun was inching down. Then through the two-lane aperture into the valley proper, past the Kiwanis sign, past “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You,” past the Pautzke Bait Company’s billboard, I rounded the curve into a moment that was like opening a Hallmark card. Grief rose up to meet those three cottonwood trees, drooping after the long day’s heat, leaning over at the turn off down into the tire-rutted county road.

I would not go around that corner. The rutted road led to a riverbank beach: my husband’s favorite take-out for rafts; the gray fist-size and smaller rocks I had portaged the children across, summer after summer, to sit, sunsuits stripped off, in shallow water where I had splashed them carefully to cool them off (and where, I believe, had I sat there and listened, carefully, I could have heard, again, their delighted shrieks of “Oooh Mama!”). The road led down to where I had unrolled Great-grandmother Moore’s Star of Bethlehem patchwork quilt and where angrily, almost defiantly, I had been “adulterous.”

It’s a small town this river runs through. I had paddled the river in my canoe through other July hot spells, through humming bugs and breeding insects, through murmurous rutting July heats. My paddles had slapped the green water smartly, and skittered the flies. I had tossed cans of water on campfires along both banks. I had carried brush for those fires. I had dumped a kayak and struggled, caught in the cottonwood roots that grew down along the sides of the bank. The force of river and the tangled roots had held me. I had almost drowned. My husband yelled, already downriver from me, “Don’t lose the goddamn paddle.”

It’s a small town this noisy river runs through. Perhaps your town is large. Size and population don’t matter — one spot waits for you where the centrifuge of memory will drag you down.

Or you wouldn’t want to be there.

Bring something to catch the drippings. The memories serve themselves up to you in the flesh, smelling fresh and still quivering. My husband’s multicolored hair — red, blond, gray, white — wild on weekends, his small tough hands reeking of surgical soap ... my little girls, tousled and tan and red-cheeked, who grew up to have magnificent bosoms and minds of their own ... my lover’s anguished face, his blue eyes rilled with a past that wouldn’t let up, his long sepulchrally cool hands, cool like trout, white at the knuckles when he gripped my arms. The bruises he left I would touch the day after, examine with the awe of a child who’s finally found proof. His long thin back, which he carried slightly off-center, taught me, finally, when it came down to it, that no one would save me. I would have to save myself. Saving myself, I left all of them, left behind my pickles and apple butters, left without mulching the white cosmos or dividing the dahlia roots.

In my yesterday’s small town, the spires and steeples cast long shadows. You shiver under them. Alter one of those patchquilt afternoons, someone — Who? Will I ever know who? — sent me a white sweatshirt with a ten-inch-high red A, an athletic letter meant for a bowling shirt.

So I drove, then, fanatically, as if my flesh were studded with iron filings, attracted to true north. The wind rushed in through the car windows, blowing the sweet smells of new-mown timothy hay and alfalfa into the car. I drove straight into the aroma of dinners and the spray of lawn sprinklers circling above fresh-cut grass, and saw, replicated in the sprays’ fans, more double rainbows. I drove into town at seven-thirty in the evening, not even six hours after leaving California. It hadn’t been enough time. What I recalled at that point was eating the first fish I had killed up in the Manashtash. I remembered the flesh — succulent, moist, pink tinged with dark brown. I remembered discovering, the meat picked off, that killing it, I had crushed its needle-thin vertebrae. I had broken its spine. I had made a doily of its skull. And then I had gone to the kitchen sink, onto which this same westering sun now shone, and washed off the bones and laid them on a shelf in the window. I suspected they were still there.

All at once, there I was: back home. I walked by the forsythia, past the apple trees and the peonies. I opened the screen door. Hugo was running toward the sound of my feet on the cement.

I had feared two scenes in which, after two years, I saw my eleven-year-old dachshund: that he would not remember me and that he would. If he didn’t, I would be hurt. If he did, I would hurt worse.

He remembered me. He skittered on the rug inside the front door. He skidded. He moaned, repeatedly, the sound a siren makes whining through city streets on its way to a crime. A long sustained cry, like mourning, rose up through his long throat. Then he jumped. He bounced. His tail whirred.

I sat down, hard. I threw my purse on the floor and my hands and arms went out to him. He licked my nose, cheeks, mouth. His breath — hot and sour — had not changed. Nor had the smell of popcorn, salty and buttered, that his body gave off. He pushed his wet nose into my hair, my ear. I kissed him. 1 grasped his strong wriggling trunk. His muscles rippled and quivered under his rich red hair.

What I had not feared is what happened. I discovered, sitting on the rug by the door, hugging a dog who repeatedly licked my nose, that I was empty of feeling for him. During two years of telling myself “I miss my dog,” the statement had ceased to be true.

I wanted to push him away. I forced myself to hold him, to smile, to say his name. I smoothed his already smooth coat. His tongue hung out, dripping saliva. His muzzle had grayed. His eyes looked cloudy across the lenses.

I stood up and straightened my skirt, brushing his red hair off the black cotton, feeling all business and unemotional. Hugo danced around my ankles. He leapt to my knees and yapped. I could hear, in memory, the echo of my calling him, through the house, crying out, “Hugo, Hugo,” waiting to be met, greeted, coming home from the store. Well, that is over, I told myself, brushing more fallen hair from my skirt.

I picked up the note my husband had left on the table: Be back at eight. Love.

I walked through the living room, through the dining room, into the long kitchen, indifferent to the objects I had put on walls, floors, and shelves for more than two decades. Hugo jumped beside me, encircled me, and when he bumped into a chair that had stood in the same spot all of his life there, I realized he was going blind.

I said, aloud, “Oh, shit,” and kicked the same chair. I asked myself, sweating now and angry, “Will all of being here feel this way? Will I not care any longer?”

The first night’s sleep in my old bed I lay there, gripping my favorite pillow, trying to go back to the unhappiness of two years earlier. I tried to reconstitute, whole, my wakefulness, my terror and anguish. I tried to bring back the grand operas of emotion that had blown through me. I couldn’t. I couldn’t even remember the person I had been then. I could only recall what I had worn. Right down to which perfume.

Over the next week I visited old friends. I drove out on country roads. I got out and stood on hillsides, just stopped the car and left the motor running and jumped out, to look out over the valley. I took my canoe down to the river and slid it into the water and floated. I had my teeth cleaned. I sat on the rock where I had killed my first fish. And I did play Kenny Loggins. It sounded thin there, and didn’t satisfy. I ate apricots off the neighbor’s tree. I played my old records. I rummaged through my old journals. I even cooked a meal.

I had expected the aging of my peers — what shocked me was the aging of our children’s friends. The little redhead, Moira, with whom Sarah, our youngest, had been friends since junior high, walked past me on Main Street, carrying a year-old baby in a backpack. We talked. Her face had wrinkled. Her eyelids drooped. Her stomach, which I could recall as flat and lovely in a purple bikini, now pooched out. Her breasts drooped under her T-shirt.

A boy our eldest daughter had known since sixth grade — “Little Joey Bach ’ ’ we called him then — was sitting at the Crossroads bar. He had delivered our morning paper until he was in the ninth grade. Now he wore a hat that read “Coop Feeds.” His neck had thickened and his hands, once barely large enough to heft the paper onto the porch, now went all around a chunky old-fashioned beer mug. At twelve his pale skin had been thin enough to show blue veins beneath his cheeks. His hair had been a blond thatch slicked down with water. Now he had a thick Buffalo Bill moustache. The bristle of his beard, a light red, shadowed his now sun-toughened, work-hard cheeks. He talked with the bartender in a booming voice. He kept saying “Sheee-ut” this and “Fug-ck” that, and when he turned on the bar stool and saw me in the booth with Don, he blushed while he nodded hello.

I like Don. I went to his house one morning. You can do that, because Don doesn’t work summers. He mostly stays out on the river. “It’s my god, the river,” he says. He goes downriver at least once every month of the year, even in winter. One summer Sunset magazine came to town. They took his picture and wrote him up.

Don is almost sixty now. We sat together in his kitchen, our feet up on the chairs. Outside, his son-in-law climbed up and down a ladder propped against the garage.

“Don is drinking too much,’’ someone said to me. I searched his tan face for the briar patches of broken capillaries that come from too much alcohol. All I could see was what hit me — the beam of his face, the big light. “But you look so wonderful,” I said. He pointed out to the backyard. His five-year-old grandson was playing tetherball. “It’s that little fucker,” he said.

When Don stood up to walk through the kitchen and open the back door, his glasses slipping down his nose and his blue eyes looking out over the top of the frames, he did what Hugo did. He bumped into a chair.

Arlene was my best friend. She sat against a redwood wall whose wide windows look out onto the willows, alder, and evergreens that fill up the gully. Outside the temperature was in the nineties, but the air-conditioned house was cool, almost chilly. While we talked, perspiration stains grew under the arms of Arlene’s lavender gauze smock.

I always thought she was the prettiest woman in town: tall, honey blonde, oval-faced and lightly freckled, with aqueous blue eyes under thick mobile bangs. At parties I would watch her, wishing I could dance that easily, laugh that melodiously, lob tennis balls as fast and as far and as accurately, that I could buy the right blue for my eyes.

She told me everything she had done in the past year. The list dittoed the mimeographed Christmas letter she had mailed me. “Well, I guess, huh, that your life in California’s pretty wild. Isn’t it?” she said.

When you go back, almost no one will want to know what you really do, what it’s really like, where you’ve gone, where you left them to go. You left them. You broke it up.

Remember too: they’re afraid they are missing something. What’s out there. They don’t want to know what it is. Once you believe there’s something, or someone, beyond Eden, Eden is already lost. They don’t want to have to go. So they will not ask.

When Arlene and I parted, that first afternoon, she hugged me lightly, tenuously, held me at a distance, as if I were a sick person and she might catch it.

Remember, going back: you said something was missing. You said there has to be more.

Friends, even acquaintances, will tell you what normally they keep to themselves. They know you’ll go away again. Leah, in her early fifties, had been widowed ten years before. Last year, she remarried. Over breakfast, almost as an aside, she said to me, “He hits me. And he’s taken my money. All of it.” Tears squeezed out and she bit her lip. “I don’t know,” she said, “what to do.”

Roger, standing by the bank while rain began to fall, talked to me rapidly, as if I were a spy sent to town to carry his message to the outside world. “I want to leave my wife,” he said. “I no longer love Alice. But I feel guilty. She hasn’t done anything.”

Three men I knew whose livelihood depended on crops told me they were worried about the com. “It wasn’t even ankle-high by Fourth of July.” But I knew, from living there, they would not tell each other.

So it is with returning. In the two years, or ten, or one month you’ve been gone, you have changed. Falling over, bumping into, trying to find, wringing the last drop of grief from your yesterdays, you find how much and how little you have changed. You ask yourself, standing on old ground, who you are now. Circling back, you are asking the past to tell you. But none of them — not the people, not even the place — ever will.

The last night I was in town Don took us all out on the river. We lit a fire on the narrow inlet where, in February, we once cooked mushrooms over a bonfire blazing on top of snow. We sang, we drank until we were unsteady. We talked. Before we doused the fire we stood — a dozen of us — holding hands around the circle of rocks that held wood and flame, crackling in the chilly and swift off-river breeze. “Please celebrate me home,” I thought as a song in myself. “It’s time I found myself, totally surrounded in your circles. . . . Play me one more song that I ’ll always remember, that I can recall whenever I find myself too all alone, that I can sing me home.”

We circled idly, swayed around the campfire. I had one hand around Don’s waist, up under his jacket, and the other on Arlene’s shoulder. Sparks flew up from the wet wood. The paper cups we’d tossed were burning, turning blue in the flame. I looked around. Flames lit the faces. Eyes met across the circle. I smiled into faces opened up by liquor and cool air and fire and long, complex, unspoken knowledge of one another and one another’s company. For the first time no one was smiling back at me. Two years ago, three, Don would have winked. Someone would have invited me to lunch. Another would have told me, “I have a book for you.” Not now. They were smiling at each other. They would be there, together, Monday morning, downtown, at a dance class, at the clinic, over at the school. Then on Monday night, they’d swim laps at the pool and then sit in the Jacuzzi and sweat and visit.

I wouldn’t be there. I’d be driving back from the airport. The taxi driver would point out the flute player and the circling dancers. He would say about them, “They all jus’ lookin’ for their yesterdays.” □

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A ranching retreat in Jamul

The headquarters for a once sprawling cattle and equine operation
I discovered, sitting on the rug by the door, hugging a dog who repeatedly licked my nose, that I was empty of feeling for him.  - Image by David Diaz
I discovered, sitting on the rug by the door, hugging a dog who repeatedly licked my nose, that I was empty of feeling for him.

Heading into the city from the airport, the taxi driver points out a clutch of long-haired vagrants walking past the piers. Bedrolls and packs are lashed onto their backs. A young-faced man, haloed by wild yellow curls, skirts around them to the front of the pack. He turns to face his companions and begins to walk backward. He is playing a wooden flute. The piping penetrates the closed cab. Three men, dressed like scarecrows, their packs and blankets bobbing above their heads, join hands to form a circle and twirl, slowly, then faster and faster. Shaking his head, the taxi driver says to me, “They all jus’ lookin’ for their yesterdays.”

So that was it! I hadn't known. Then a taxi driver told me. I’d been gone two weeks, from California, where I’d lived two years. 1 didn't understand where I’d been. I didn't know why I went. I wish I’d talked to that taxi driver before I left. 1 wish I'd known.

We ignore the subject of return. Nobody writes about how to go back over old ground. Ours is a mobile society. Going back is transgression. Return is taboo. As if a cat backtracked to its mess. Prevailing wisdom emphasizes the present. “Make a fresh start. Forget the past.” But there’s always something or someone “back there,” niggling. There has to be. Anyone who moves on had a reason to leave, even if that reason is nothing — no work, no friends, no housing. You leave for a reason. Even if something inside you sent you off, what it was still gnaws at you the way a long-toothed rat gnaws cheese parings. You can’t go home again. But you want to, and given the chance, you do.

You may still detest the local politics. You may hate the people, or a person, or the climate. You may hate snow. You will have forgotten a lot. But you don’t get over the ground.

Each returnee pleads a special case. My father, when he heard I was returning, wrote, “I would not have considered going back after your mother divorced me.” But he had gone back. At the time he had told us, “I wanted to see, once more, the house where I was born.” Now I said, ‘‘I’m looking for summer.”

Before I pulled up in front of the two-story house I’d lived in and — twice — painted brown, I’d already driven past the doctor’s office where I learned I had a lump in my breast, past the clinic where the lump was removed and looking at it, I had said, “It looks like a piece of chicken fat,” past the gray shack where I’d seen a porcupine throw quills into a yowling Irish setter, past the streetlights where I’d watched a dozen seasons’ snowfalls sift down through the yellow light, where I’d watched ash from Mt. St. Helens drift down, looking like snow but smelling like sulphur. Sighting the doctor’s sign, the Heavenly Blue morning glories vining up the walls of the gray shack, returned the past. Each memory came in an unbroken chunk. I was in my memory, but the I of my memory was no longer the me driving past.

Nobody tells you how to go back. When it first struck me that I wanted to, I didn’t even know what it was.

Nobody tells you how to go back. When it first struck me that I wanted to, I didn’t even know what it was. Out of the blue California sky, it hit: the sudden, apparently spontaneous inclination, which felt like falling in love, but wasn’t. I told myself it would pass. I said I was tired. I needed a vacation. I told myself I was only looking for, hankering after, real summer of the old-fashioned Midwestern heat wave variety. But it was more than highs in the high nineties, more than days as slow as a low river, that drew me back. I was hungry for more than watermelon so ripe the first stab cracks it. I was about to become another of those vagrants, wild hair, dragging a bedroll, looking for yesterday.

It seems, in retrospect, to have happened fast. “Celebrate me home,” Kenny Loggins sang one morning on the radio. “Play me a song I’ll always remember.” I couldn’t believe what I’d heard. I bought the cassette. I played, studied, then replayed that one song. Then I bought the ticket, shaded my eyes from the brass-band glare of the California sky, and scuttled gratefully into a DC-8. I had Loggins playing into my ears and I felt happy.

What was I leaving as I flew back north? Well, it won’t seem like much to you. Two years before I’d rented a room with two windows to the west and one to the south. I bought a cheap radio and turned it on. I tried all the stations. For the first time in my life I was by myself. I liked it. After the first year I bought bamboo shades. But it still wasn’t much. Someone opened my door, looked in, said, “This is a Bedouin’s existence.” It is. Hotplate. Cup-of-Soup. Change of clothes. But it had the virtue of being a life I could walk across without every square block evoking memories, a life whose store windows didn’t show me back a three-act play starring myself.

Three hours after leaving California the Washington coast came up in the window: Seattle and the San Juans; Bainbridge and Vashon Islands. It was late afternoon. The rain had pulled back up into the sky, and off to the east, out of Elliott Bay, by God, a double rainbow arched up. Loggins was pleading, “Please celebrate me home, so I can make believe I’ve never gone.” At the airport meeters and greeters, wrapped in still-damp steaming rain slickers, grinned and waved and kissed.

Soon I was driving past Seattle, heading 105 miles into central Washington. Interstate 5 loops through the Cascades, a range of picture-postcard mountains. The traffic was light. I rewound, replayed Loggins across Snoqualmie Pass. There, at 3500 feet, I-5 begins to drop down the eastern Cascade foothills into Kittitas County. At the county line, an aw-shucks Western movie vista, you’d swear you’ve driven into Montana 600 miles too soon.

Black basalt lies right under the tufted bunchgrass. The tufts grow through the gray ash blown out of Mt. St. Helens’ first big one. The hard, dense volcanic basalt stands vertically, ebony and dramatic and looming: a badlands.

“But no one divorced me" I had told my father when he remonstrated with me for going back. My father called that “nit-picking.” I’d packed and gone. I’d left the pantry, there in the brown house in the middle of black basalt and ash; I’d left it stacked with bread-and-butter pickles and peach preserves and apple butter pressed from apples off the trees in the front yard. I had not replanted the dahlia tubers, not separated the peonies or bent the stems of white cosmos down for winter. I had not mulched. I had taken suitcases, a few books, and walked away from twenty years.

So I was five miles out of town on the rise. The seven o’clock westering sun hit the brick east facings on the four-block downtown and the one-hundred-year-old university buildings. I slowed my rented Toyota to a putter. What had been blurred for me in California by being only a memory now was out there. This was the real thing. My eyes ate it up. It burned going down, like whiskey. Driving downhill, I peered further out over the green valley, twenty-five miles long and ten miles wide. I looked past the town water tower thick with the numbers of years — 1983, 1976 — high school classes had painted on it, past the clock tower, past the old city hall to Manashtash Ridge, a cordillera of hills forming the valley’s south and west walls. I felt home begin to melt in my mouth. I’d go up there tomorrow. I’d take a six-pack. I’d stretch out. I’d play Kenny Loggins. I’d walk under the Douglas fir and cottonwood and alder. I’d walk under the shadows that dapple the ankle-deep carpeting, and I’d sink into the mulching, moldering evergreen needles, the damp leaves and dry lichens. I’d be careful not to slip on the soft moss.

Even if I were quiet, I’d likely not see the elk and deer scuffle down below timberline. But I knew, from rare times, having watched, that the dark chocolate eyes look up and the thick movie-star lashes blink when they hear the flapping overflights of red-tailed hawks or the occasional vulture.

I could cool the beer in the creek where, after coming down over a shallow riffle, the cold water makes a hard right turn and runs against a basalt cliff, forming a narrow, deep slot. Then the water fans out into a broad flat, twenty feet wide and a hundred feet long. I could watch as, during a late afternoon mayfly hatch, fifty cutthroat trout methodically nip insects out of the surface film.

I had held the trout’s slippery throat, tightly, then knocked its head on a rock jutting out over the noisy creek.

I could sit on the same rock where for the first time I’d had blood on my hands that wasn’t from raw hamburger or a paring knife cut. I had held the trout’s slippery throat, tightly, then knocked its head on a rock jutting out over the noisy creek. The eye looked up. I rapped the head on the shiny hump of granite, rapped it repeatedly, fiercely, as in the last frenzied moments of sex. The water plashed down over the glinting rocks. The water gurgled, made swallowing, gulping, choking sounds.

Another two miles east I-5 begins to follow the Yakima River downhill between West Manashtash Ridge and Horse Heaven Hills. I was closing in. The sun was inching down. Then through the two-lane aperture into the valley proper, past the Kiwanis sign, past “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You,” past the Pautzke Bait Company’s billboard, I rounded the curve into a moment that was like opening a Hallmark card. Grief rose up to meet those three cottonwood trees, drooping after the long day’s heat, leaning over at the turn off down into the tire-rutted county road.

I would not go around that corner. The rutted road led to a riverbank beach: my husband’s favorite take-out for rafts; the gray fist-size and smaller rocks I had portaged the children across, summer after summer, to sit, sunsuits stripped off, in shallow water where I had splashed them carefully to cool them off (and where, I believe, had I sat there and listened, carefully, I could have heard, again, their delighted shrieks of “Oooh Mama!”). The road led down to where I had unrolled Great-grandmother Moore’s Star of Bethlehem patchwork quilt and where angrily, almost defiantly, I had been “adulterous.”

It’s a small town this river runs through. I had paddled the river in my canoe through other July hot spells, through humming bugs and breeding insects, through murmurous rutting July heats. My paddles had slapped the green water smartly, and skittered the flies. I had tossed cans of water on campfires along both banks. I had carried brush for those fires. I had dumped a kayak and struggled, caught in the cottonwood roots that grew down along the sides of the bank. The force of river and the tangled roots had held me. I had almost drowned. My husband yelled, already downriver from me, “Don’t lose the goddamn paddle.”

It’s a small town this noisy river runs through. Perhaps your town is large. Size and population don’t matter — one spot waits for you where the centrifuge of memory will drag you down.

Or you wouldn’t want to be there.

Bring something to catch the drippings. The memories serve themselves up to you in the flesh, smelling fresh and still quivering. My husband’s multicolored hair — red, blond, gray, white — wild on weekends, his small tough hands reeking of surgical soap ... my little girls, tousled and tan and red-cheeked, who grew up to have magnificent bosoms and minds of their own ... my lover’s anguished face, his blue eyes rilled with a past that wouldn’t let up, his long sepulchrally cool hands, cool like trout, white at the knuckles when he gripped my arms. The bruises he left I would touch the day after, examine with the awe of a child who’s finally found proof. His long thin back, which he carried slightly off-center, taught me, finally, when it came down to it, that no one would save me. I would have to save myself. Saving myself, I left all of them, left behind my pickles and apple butters, left without mulching the white cosmos or dividing the dahlia roots.

In my yesterday’s small town, the spires and steeples cast long shadows. You shiver under them. Alter one of those patchquilt afternoons, someone — Who? Will I ever know who? — sent me a white sweatshirt with a ten-inch-high red A, an athletic letter meant for a bowling shirt.

So I drove, then, fanatically, as if my flesh were studded with iron filings, attracted to true north. The wind rushed in through the car windows, blowing the sweet smells of new-mown timothy hay and alfalfa into the car. I drove straight into the aroma of dinners and the spray of lawn sprinklers circling above fresh-cut grass, and saw, replicated in the sprays’ fans, more double rainbows. I drove into town at seven-thirty in the evening, not even six hours after leaving California. It hadn’t been enough time. What I recalled at that point was eating the first fish I had killed up in the Manashtash. I remembered the flesh — succulent, moist, pink tinged with dark brown. I remembered discovering, the meat picked off, that killing it, I had crushed its needle-thin vertebrae. I had broken its spine. I had made a doily of its skull. And then I had gone to the kitchen sink, onto which this same westering sun now shone, and washed off the bones and laid them on a shelf in the window. I suspected they were still there.

All at once, there I was: back home. I walked by the forsythia, past the apple trees and the peonies. I opened the screen door. Hugo was running toward the sound of my feet on the cement.

I had feared two scenes in which, after two years, I saw my eleven-year-old dachshund: that he would not remember me and that he would. If he didn’t, I would be hurt. If he did, I would hurt worse.

He remembered me. He skittered on the rug inside the front door. He skidded. He moaned, repeatedly, the sound a siren makes whining through city streets on its way to a crime. A long sustained cry, like mourning, rose up through his long throat. Then he jumped. He bounced. His tail whirred.

I sat down, hard. I threw my purse on the floor and my hands and arms went out to him. He licked my nose, cheeks, mouth. His breath — hot and sour — had not changed. Nor had the smell of popcorn, salty and buttered, that his body gave off. He pushed his wet nose into my hair, my ear. I kissed him. 1 grasped his strong wriggling trunk. His muscles rippled and quivered under his rich red hair.

What I had not feared is what happened. I discovered, sitting on the rug by the door, hugging a dog who repeatedly licked my nose, that I was empty of feeling for him. During two years of telling myself “I miss my dog,” the statement had ceased to be true.

I wanted to push him away. I forced myself to hold him, to smile, to say his name. I smoothed his already smooth coat. His tongue hung out, dripping saliva. His muzzle had grayed. His eyes looked cloudy across the lenses.

I stood up and straightened my skirt, brushing his red hair off the black cotton, feeling all business and unemotional. Hugo danced around my ankles. He leapt to my knees and yapped. I could hear, in memory, the echo of my calling him, through the house, crying out, “Hugo, Hugo,” waiting to be met, greeted, coming home from the store. Well, that is over, I told myself, brushing more fallen hair from my skirt.

I picked up the note my husband had left on the table: Be back at eight. Love.

I walked through the living room, through the dining room, into the long kitchen, indifferent to the objects I had put on walls, floors, and shelves for more than two decades. Hugo jumped beside me, encircled me, and when he bumped into a chair that had stood in the same spot all of his life there, I realized he was going blind.

I said, aloud, “Oh, shit,” and kicked the same chair. I asked myself, sweating now and angry, “Will all of being here feel this way? Will I not care any longer?”

The first night’s sleep in my old bed I lay there, gripping my favorite pillow, trying to go back to the unhappiness of two years earlier. I tried to reconstitute, whole, my wakefulness, my terror and anguish. I tried to bring back the grand operas of emotion that had blown through me. I couldn’t. I couldn’t even remember the person I had been then. I could only recall what I had worn. Right down to which perfume.

Over the next week I visited old friends. I drove out on country roads. I got out and stood on hillsides, just stopped the car and left the motor running and jumped out, to look out over the valley. I took my canoe down to the river and slid it into the water and floated. I had my teeth cleaned. I sat on the rock where I had killed my first fish. And I did play Kenny Loggins. It sounded thin there, and didn’t satisfy. I ate apricots off the neighbor’s tree. I played my old records. I rummaged through my old journals. I even cooked a meal.

I had expected the aging of my peers — what shocked me was the aging of our children’s friends. The little redhead, Moira, with whom Sarah, our youngest, had been friends since junior high, walked past me on Main Street, carrying a year-old baby in a backpack. We talked. Her face had wrinkled. Her eyelids drooped. Her stomach, which I could recall as flat and lovely in a purple bikini, now pooched out. Her breasts drooped under her T-shirt.

A boy our eldest daughter had known since sixth grade — “Little Joey Bach ’ ’ we called him then — was sitting at the Crossroads bar. He had delivered our morning paper until he was in the ninth grade. Now he wore a hat that read “Coop Feeds.” His neck had thickened and his hands, once barely large enough to heft the paper onto the porch, now went all around a chunky old-fashioned beer mug. At twelve his pale skin had been thin enough to show blue veins beneath his cheeks. His hair had been a blond thatch slicked down with water. Now he had a thick Buffalo Bill moustache. The bristle of his beard, a light red, shadowed his now sun-toughened, work-hard cheeks. He talked with the bartender in a booming voice. He kept saying “Sheee-ut” this and “Fug-ck” that, and when he turned on the bar stool and saw me in the booth with Don, he blushed while he nodded hello.

I like Don. I went to his house one morning. You can do that, because Don doesn’t work summers. He mostly stays out on the river. “It’s my god, the river,” he says. He goes downriver at least once every month of the year, even in winter. One summer Sunset magazine came to town. They took his picture and wrote him up.

Don is almost sixty now. We sat together in his kitchen, our feet up on the chairs. Outside, his son-in-law climbed up and down a ladder propped against the garage.

“Don is drinking too much,’’ someone said to me. I searched his tan face for the briar patches of broken capillaries that come from too much alcohol. All I could see was what hit me — the beam of his face, the big light. “But you look so wonderful,” I said. He pointed out to the backyard. His five-year-old grandson was playing tetherball. “It’s that little fucker,” he said.

When Don stood up to walk through the kitchen and open the back door, his glasses slipping down his nose and his blue eyes looking out over the top of the frames, he did what Hugo did. He bumped into a chair.

Arlene was my best friend. She sat against a redwood wall whose wide windows look out onto the willows, alder, and evergreens that fill up the gully. Outside the temperature was in the nineties, but the air-conditioned house was cool, almost chilly. While we talked, perspiration stains grew under the arms of Arlene’s lavender gauze smock.

I always thought she was the prettiest woman in town: tall, honey blonde, oval-faced and lightly freckled, with aqueous blue eyes under thick mobile bangs. At parties I would watch her, wishing I could dance that easily, laugh that melodiously, lob tennis balls as fast and as far and as accurately, that I could buy the right blue for my eyes.

She told me everything she had done in the past year. The list dittoed the mimeographed Christmas letter she had mailed me. “Well, I guess, huh, that your life in California’s pretty wild. Isn’t it?” she said.

When you go back, almost no one will want to know what you really do, what it’s really like, where you’ve gone, where you left them to go. You left them. You broke it up.

Remember too: they’re afraid they are missing something. What’s out there. They don’t want to know what it is. Once you believe there’s something, or someone, beyond Eden, Eden is already lost. They don’t want to have to go. So they will not ask.

When Arlene and I parted, that first afternoon, she hugged me lightly, tenuously, held me at a distance, as if I were a sick person and she might catch it.

Remember, going back: you said something was missing. You said there has to be more.

Friends, even acquaintances, will tell you what normally they keep to themselves. They know you’ll go away again. Leah, in her early fifties, had been widowed ten years before. Last year, she remarried. Over breakfast, almost as an aside, she said to me, “He hits me. And he’s taken my money. All of it.” Tears squeezed out and she bit her lip. “I don’t know,” she said, “what to do.”

Roger, standing by the bank while rain began to fall, talked to me rapidly, as if I were a spy sent to town to carry his message to the outside world. “I want to leave my wife,” he said. “I no longer love Alice. But I feel guilty. She hasn’t done anything.”

Three men I knew whose livelihood depended on crops told me they were worried about the com. “It wasn’t even ankle-high by Fourth of July.” But I knew, from living there, they would not tell each other.

So it is with returning. In the two years, or ten, or one month you’ve been gone, you have changed. Falling over, bumping into, trying to find, wringing the last drop of grief from your yesterdays, you find how much and how little you have changed. You ask yourself, standing on old ground, who you are now. Circling back, you are asking the past to tell you. But none of them — not the people, not even the place — ever will.

The last night I was in town Don took us all out on the river. We lit a fire on the narrow inlet where, in February, we once cooked mushrooms over a bonfire blazing on top of snow. We sang, we drank until we were unsteady. We talked. Before we doused the fire we stood — a dozen of us — holding hands around the circle of rocks that held wood and flame, crackling in the chilly and swift off-river breeze. “Please celebrate me home,” I thought as a song in myself. “It’s time I found myself, totally surrounded in your circles. . . . Play me one more song that I ’ll always remember, that I can recall whenever I find myself too all alone, that I can sing me home.”

We circled idly, swayed around the campfire. I had one hand around Don’s waist, up under his jacket, and the other on Arlene’s shoulder. Sparks flew up from the wet wood. The paper cups we’d tossed were burning, turning blue in the flame. I looked around. Flames lit the faces. Eyes met across the circle. I smiled into faces opened up by liquor and cool air and fire and long, complex, unspoken knowledge of one another and one another’s company. For the first time no one was smiling back at me. Two years ago, three, Don would have winked. Someone would have invited me to lunch. Another would have told me, “I have a book for you.” Not now. They were smiling at each other. They would be there, together, Monday morning, downtown, at a dance class, at the clinic, over at the school. Then on Monday night, they’d swim laps at the pool and then sit in the Jacuzzi and sweat and visit.

I wouldn’t be there. I’d be driving back from the airport. The taxi driver would point out the flute player and the circling dancers. He would say about them, “They all jus’ lookin’ for their yesterdays.” □

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