A familiar figure comes huffing it up the horse run bisecting farms and gardens out here, this clearing in the green we call it the Bridle Walk when, wow—it occurs to me that wow, the whole of a life might reduce to its regrets. Or to its mistakes, like to its accidents and its habits, and that the totality of this is what has coiled like so many live wires in the corners of Dad’s empty house.
It’s Mother’s Day, so Spring is gone, and Dad is waiting for my text back near where the side yard meets the garden.
This hole I’ve dug for him puts me at eye-level with the pasture grass, with grass so green it’s spring water blue in the maple shade and so I lift, I sort of twist myself out for to faithfully face these changes, my fate.
Dew in the wildflowers, all windswept and wet. The figure comes to rest by the cattle fence, then the sprinklers start.
The plan was I’m to text Dad when I spot the bust-up pipe, but this childlike shock of water sets me wading out toward the cattle fence with mud on my hands, and this taste like ash in my mouth, because wildfires through the springtime months is normal now—another drought year in the hills—and here Dad is with his sprinklers set to double-time like three—hell, more like four times a day for the flood-colored greens the housing markets like, and I’m out here fixing broken pipes for a bit of extra beer money as if all things kept and sold in America weren’t already, or again, or forever—or whatever—completely, remorselessly broken.
Then this figure by the fence becomes Mary Lynn Milke, my first love’s mother.
‘Wow,’ I say, stumbling clumsily into the light and this, my clumsiness, it makes Lynn laugh.
‘They say change,’ Lynn says, laughing. ‘What change?’
We attempt a hug over the chest-high fence, careful not to brush against the electric line Dad runs hot despite having sold the last of his animals weeks ago, and I’m mindful not to muddy Lynn’s linen shirt as our collarbones touch.
‘Where’s your dad off to?’ Lynn asks. ‘Jill and I heard he’s selling?’
‘To the coast,’ I say, and sort of shortly, for on the mountainside behind Lynn the brushfire smoke has purpled and deepened.
‘That’s vague of him,’ Lynn says.
‘I’m sorry—no, as in up to Seaside,’ I say, and then the sprinklers quit.
Their absence—abrupt, mechanic—it amplifies the fire siren and birdsong, and in the drought-clenched distance smoke is winding out toward Granny Ashworth’s assisted living center on the mountainside, where after work I plan to take Granny her Mother’s Day drugs and flowers.
‘Did the winds shift?’ Lynn asks, turning now to look. ‘All there’d been was brushfire when I left the barn.’
My pant leg vibrates, and as I lift the phone to my face Dad is saying, ‘Honey—Dad here hey—do you see the fucked-up pipe?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘Run it again, Dad, I’m still digging.’
And as the sprinklers start my phone vibrates again, but with new alarm, and now Lynn’s is sounding too, and the look in Lynn’s eyes is suddenly so familiar, or so familial as to remind me of Jill’s when one night years ago we’d woke to explosions outside our third floor walkup in the city, and how in them was this same rushing on of panic and jackets and how, setting out into the black plastic reek of a car fire her eyes watered in the purple swirl of siren lights, and in the smoke and sideways snow and how, in the weeks-long residue of after that, Jill’s eyes darkened and left mine for good, for already by then it was over.
Lynn reads the county-issued alert on her phone, saying, ‘They’re evacuating the mountain—all homes and large animals it says—I’d better go.’
So we attempt a hug again, but as I bring my hands back to this side of the fence I’m lifted into a burning current of light that then twists me onto my back and into a wet shock of wildflowers.
‘Wow,’ I say.
And in the heat of my hands I’m reminded of Granny Ashworth again, and the drugs I need to take her, and it occurs to me that this particular antibiotic is the same drug that once enhanced Granny’s sensitivity to light, and how after one summer’s nap Granny woke with third-degree burns blooming in blisters all across the creases of her wrists, and how later they’d burst to expose Granny’s bones—bones as white as the sea-bleached driftwood Dad and I drug into stacks for burning the last time we escaped to the Coast—and as Mrs. Milke screams, then points, then laughs again at my clumsiness, and as I insist that ‘No, really Lynn, I really am alright,’ I want nothing more than to be finished fixing Dad’s broken pipes, and to have already delivered Granny her Mother’s Day drugs and flowers, and want nothing but to be drinking alone under the American neon burn of my favorite bar on the mountainside, a tavern where sometimes they still let you smoke inside and where, sometimes, the bartender’s eyes will water with a darkness familiar to mine in the barroom’s lavender light, and after three drinks—well, after maybe four, I will take the bartender’s hands into mine and ask about her scars, about her accidents and her habits, and then the whole of my life will reduce to the moment I’m alone again, and then the sprinklers quit.
Dylan A. Smith is a writer with work in Maudlin House and Atticus Review and Vol. 1 Brooklyn and sometimes helps to curate fiction workshops with a project called Think Olio in upstate New York.