On bad days, such as this, I stumble around my house knowing that I will never again find my wife in any of the rooms I enter. Fairly often, I stop and stand wherever I am in the house—today, in the kitchen, with the fluorescent light grinding away electronically above me, thinking with all my might, that I would give up anything to have her back with me again. And I would gladly bring her back to me on the worst day of our relationship (so few are they), standing there keenly enraged at something I have done, but standing there. Just standing there with me. My wife.
I am incapable of dressing myself. Strike that. I am, I should say, incapable of properly dressing myself. Yes, I can easily pull on a pair of plaid slacks and then climb directly into a canary yellow shirt. But when I am finished I look, as my friend likes to say, ungood.
For nearly thirty years, my wife dressed me. She—a fashion-wise seamstress by vocation—soon assembled a Mitch-proof wardrobe with a compatible mix of shirt and pants in somewhat muted colors and design that could not be mismatched. I could grab any two things and wear them without alarm to anyone’s sartorial sensibilities. Furthermore, she made certain that all sizes were in proper accord. From time to time I still struggled with mixing blue and black socks. No system is foolproof.
Since my sweet wife’s passing, not even two full months in time, I have degraded stridently in my appearance. Not the obviously aged and inherently, as my friend might say, unhandsome thing I naturally struggle with. I cannot do anything about that. What I mean is, my dress has corrupted again. I am presently swimming in ill-fitting shirts. My sweats attempt to ankle themselves at nearly every step. I have acquired a few new shirts with wrong patterns. My colors often scream at passersby. I cannot help myself. I am doomed by some faulty design in fashion sense from the get-go. Back in the day, I continued on with paisley patterns, nearly ten years after they fell from grace. Just yesterday, thanks to my forgetting to purchase cling-free dryer sheets for several weeks, a sock fell to the floor from inside my jacket when I reached for something at work. Only by dumb luck, the third sock matched the two I was wearing.
Driving to work along the ranchroads this morning, I found dust hanging in the air throughout the pine and juniper arroyos and overtop the painted horses at the Rafter paddocks, evidence of someone leaving ahead of me. My early morning beginnings have removed me from the normal cycles of most people scattered in the low hills and lakefront homes around me. Mostly, I find only evidence of their passing: cats slinking along the sunflowered berms, dogs trotting fencelines. I have encountered strange things, too. Once, in mid-summer, I nearly ran overtop a rainbow trout lying in the middle of the road. The trout was frozen solid and longer than my forearm. Another time, I rounded a corner and found a translucent plastic bag hovering above the sage and bunchgrass just off the road. The bag slowly circulated above, seemingly without intent to fall back to the ground. I drove off with the bag still hovering aloft. I have found girly magazines and tie-downs and maybe a dozen articles of clothing.
Some mornings, I stop and pull Dalmatian toadflax from the shale rolls and then scatter the plants across the gravel road. On occasion, I stop and speak with the horses. “Beautiful morning,” I say to them as they glance oblique. One horse always faces the exact opposite direction of the others. I imagine that horse as the poet or the simpleton, the difference is the same. Today, as I wheeled through the dust, hanging before me like a lake mist, the dull smell of earth and the sharp smell of juniper filled my truck, and the thought struck me that I like the smell of dust. I prefer that to the sweet smell of water.
Rain fell across my roof just before sunrise, sounding like dozens of kittens padding over. Once the rain stopped, I stepped outside to warm rainsmell and the occasional cool tap against my arm and cheeks of lingering droplets finding a way down from the lolling clouds. As I watched, the new sun slowly brushed watercolor orange and yellow and red into the highest peaks and clouded sky above the Big Belt Mountains. The final drops of rain began to mist before reaching me.
I have always been drawn the sunrise. This is something I cannot explain. Today, when the sun appeared over the muted blue range, it came with a rainbow sundog in lockstep. I swear to you, Love, witnessing the dawn of this day felt exactly like that first time we really kissed, down at the lakeshore those twenty-some years ago.
So, maybe you didn’t recognize opportunity because opportunity came in the form of a 43-year-old grass widow form California who moved in down the street. You winced at the sight of her suicide-blonde hair and neon yellow tube-top. Her teenage son smoked unfiltered cigarettes while sitting on the front stoop and flicked his butts onto the street. On Saturdays, opportunity washed her SUV on the street while wearing short-shorts. The kid’s cigarette butts trickled down the curb to your drive. Using your garden hose, you sprayed them away. And, actually, when you think back, opportunity had a pretty nice ass.
In this lurid dream I discovered myself trapped in a narrow mountain valley as two grizzly bears, one wearing a blue jacket, chased me through the meadow bottom and around a log cabin there. I could not find a way inside the cabin. Just as the bear in the blue jacket made a final charge, I woke with a lurch to my own bed. The silence of my room felt like a truck parked right on top of my chest. I felt barely an inch deep. I lay there, all alone, clenching and unclenching my fingers, panicked.
My wife put a great deal of stock in her dreams. She used to ask my oldest sister to interpret them. The dreams of falling without finding a bottom. The dreams of fish kissing her. The dreams of not hearing voices when people spoke. Connie always managed a bright and positive meaning. Something swell was about to happen.
I know that my own dreams are nonsense. But what does this mean that even my two cats have abandoned me through the last string of late nights?
I left my house at 4:00 in the morning and drove north through the canyon country and along the rivers until I reached a place where I could watch the sun climb over the Rocky Mountains. Here is the first photograph from the day.
I have been missing my wife terribly these last few days. Every time I close my eyes I see her face. I have been going out of my way to stay busy, to step out of my normal behavior patterns, to carve-out a new place for me. Today (Father’s Day) I set my alarm for 3:00 AM. I met Chris McGowan in Helena and we drove the dark to the Front Range near August to watch the sunrise and take photographs.
The Front is, hands down, my favorite region of Montana. I love how the blockish overthrust mountains tumble down onto the plains all at once, the herds of elk pouring down the green mountain flanks like seafoam down frozen waves, the oceans of yellow balsamroot, the cattle lazing by pools of water and the lofty snowfields defying the sun.
I thought of my wife often. I spoke her name. I sprawled on the earth to merge with every photograph.
Here is a picture of Haystack Butte, taken early this morning.
5:04 in the morning. Another overcast day begins to seep through the bruised night outside my windows. I have been sitting in my living room, fully awake, for over an hour now, trying to figure out the best way to make the silence stop.
Yesterday, we found out that the wife of our coworker (she is thirty-one and has twin girls slightly over a year old) has leukemia after having banishing the disease from her body once five years ago. She is faced with four weeks of hospitalization and chemo. This will be followed by four months of bone marrow transplant procedures. And that will be followed by…what?
I thought about this woman all night. I thought about my own wife, now gone following her own fight with cancer. I thought about the babies, the husband, Afghanistan, my daughter, and I slept only a little. At a bit after five this morning, I left my house and started driving around the valley, just to feel the sensation of motion. Eventually I stopped so that I could watch the sunrise. Posted here is a picture of the place where I finally settled to begin this new day in our always cruel and sometimes beautiful world.
I wake at 3:00 in the morning, with my legs aching all the way through, and sweat seeping damp and cold along my hairline. For two days and nights, gripped by a pitched fever, I have been captive in my own house, doing nothing more than sleeping in various places: my bed, Helen’s old bed, the sofa, the easy chairs, sprawled on the floor. My stomach churned rancid the whole time and my thoughts detached from reason. The talking heads on television even made sense when I managed ten minutes of that yesterday. The Fed is out of tools in the toolbox. Night before last, I woke to the sound of the boiler clicking to ignite in a far-away place, but once lighted, the boiler became a cat at my elbow. Later, I woke on the floor and thought I might be at a sleepover on summer grass.
I wake at 4:00 in the morning in my own room. My head throbs. My teeth hurt. The fever is breaking. I slowly begin to identify this reality—this is the one where my house remains fiercely quiet. I am the only person here. I force my eyes open to take measure of the room, the pastel walls, dark floor. Pale blue light blinks far off down the hall—my satellite link always alive, seeking contact. Soon enough, the blinking LED lights and my throbbing headache assume same tattoo.
As I sat on the crinkled paper covering the examining table, listening to the stunning young woman (doctor’s assistant) expound on the possible causes for my persistent sore throat…
Question: Have you had any unusual stress in your life recently?
Answer: Yes, you could say that. I lost my wife very recently.
As I sat there, a swell of emotion filled the whole of me. Not the grieving for my wife, which has been constant and heavy, as if someone has thrown a lead x-ray blanket overtop me that I cannot shake free. And this did not feel base and hydraulic as a sexual response might. Something else, here.
The young woman certainly struck me as beautiful, with her long, color-streaked hair pulled back and orderly, smooth and consistent as the shell of an egg. Her skin lacked a single blemish, and, as she spoke, often using medical terms that sounded like entire sentences themselves, her lips became almost liquefied. I quickly began to lose track of the words.
I honestly had to fight back the urge to reach out and take her wrist. I wanted to say to her: “Please, stop talking so that I can simply sit here and look at your face for just a little bit. I just need to figure you out.”
Mostly, I wanted to look into her eyes, which were deep and green—green as the first blade of grass to volunteer from the over-wintering earth. I almost felt is if I were falling into her eyes. Those eyes, not sharp, but soft as new moss, and without a hint of sadness underlying them.
Lifting from the grass, starlings sometimes school and shoal in the air as if fish in the ocean. Hundreds of them might spill from a tree at once, ball together in midair, and then shift about wildly against the blue sky, turning darkside-out or lightside-out with every unified change of direction. This behavior is useful in the presence of hawks or other predators. A single bird is a target.
In the autumn, this behavior intensifies as the birds flock together for migration. You might see thousands of starlings swirling up into dark clouds that swing around trees and over farmhouses and sifting right through the low clouds, flashing new colors, as if electrified, each time they change course. And always you notice a single bird outside the shoaling mass. The single bird remains far out-of-sync, dropping out the bottom when the flock arcs nearly straight-up, tumbling early into a hard turn while the others streak on. On occasion, you allow yourself to follow the solitary starling, the endangered one. Sometimes, you are that single bird.
Dear wife, I have nothing of my own to keep in the cupboard that once held your lotus tea, French onion soup, and gluten-free snacks. All of that, I swept into a paper bag and gave away a few days after you left me standing alone in this big house. I noticed, only after removing all of that, the smallish pill cornered in the back: white and oblong, with “L607” stamped on the face.
The pill might be anything. Maybe a fix for heartburn. Perhaps, if I swallow the pill, I will stop coming awake late in the night, thinking a might hear you walking in another room, the hollow report of your cane finding a sure hold on the floor. Maybe, if you had found and taken the pill, you would yet be with me today.
After examining the pill, rolling it though my fingers, I pressed the pill against my tongue for second. The pill tasted like what I imagine you would taste if you licked the surface of a willow leaf. A little bitter. Dust. Sated with these experiments, I gingerly placed the pill at the very center of the empty cupboard, closed the door.
I have taken to opening the cupboard and peering inside every few days. I study the pill. Sometimes, I take the pill into my palm. On other occasions, I merely stare at the pill, almost fearful to touch. Today, I gazed long into the cupboard. The pill sitting there, steady as a god. I have nothing better to keep in there.
One morning, a man woke from his sleep convinced that he felt the turning of the earth, that he could feel the exact sensation of heaving ahead, of air licking the fine hairs on his arms, of stars tickling his chest as he whisked through them. There, in the hanged-man silence, he imagined a certain direction of travel. South, in fact. He drew in a deep breath, the stars now stinging against his cheeks like flakes of snow, but warm. The man imagined that he might exhale forcefully enough to cause the world to stop moving. But that is not what he did.
Driving to work today, in that early half-light hour when red houses appear black and the surrounding mountains are dark and blue as stones in a deep pool of water, I got to thinking…since the passing of my wife, I am defined by that loss. This is how I see myself. This is how everyone else sees me. My friend Kevin, who lost his wife two years ago, and who now regularly calls me late at night when he is drunk just so that he can wake me and tell me that he loves me, once said: “You will not see some of your friends for a while because they don’t know what to say to you. They are afraid to come around.”
I parked at an angle in an empty spot right next to—by coincidence—the van owned and driven by one of my best friends and no more than thirty paces from the house in which I lived from the time of my birth to about the age of five. I entered the squat, non-descript commercial building next to the house. At one time, the building housed a Laundromat, one I used as a bachelor many years back. The woman inside the door (she looked, somehow, like she belonged in the building) recognized me. “Are you ready for this?” she asked, raising her brows, appraising me.
“Yes…I guess I am,” I answered.
The woman stepped into a back room, leaving me to evaluate the place. Big, distorted mirrors—I looked quite plump in one of them. Powder-blue walls. Fake flowers swaying at the work spaces from display shelves on the walls. Heavy, floor-length curtains drawn shut at all the outside windows so that passersby on Main Street could not see inside. The woman quickly returned and extended a cardboard box towards me. “Here she is,” the woman said, not entirely committed to sounding pleasant. I took the box in both hands, held the box, felt the perfectly smooth sides, the utility and completeness.
Stop. Stop and think, Mitch! Look at the box, Mitch. The box, Mitch! The box.
The woman had just handed my wife. Scenes flashed through my mind. Uyen fishing along the sparkles of Hogum Creek. Uyen hanging an angel made of straw and red thread on the Christmas tree, smiling. The box seemed ill-sized, not even big enough to hold a toaster or salad bowl, not particularly heavy, but not light as the ashes from the woodstove at our cabin. Not a wife in there—
Stop, Mitch! Why do you always find need to compare things, explain them, expand them? What the fuck is wrong with you? Stop and recognize that you are holding your wife. This is your wife! The box had a bright white label affixed to the top. I read the label: Uyen Hegman. How implausible, that? Mitch, listen, you have—had—a wife with that name. But this is a box.
“How did you meet her?” the woman asked, seeming suddenly nervous about the obvious withdrawal taking place within me, the silence.
I glanced at the fat me in the mirror and answered, “My mother set us up. She was worried about me. She worked with Uyen and really liked her. My mother did not like many people, but she liked Uyen very much.”
We spoke a bit more. I thanked the woman, left the building.
Outside, in the shadow-cross light, I took the box to my truck. I placed the box on the seat beside me, backed out of the parking spot, and drove across Prickly Pear Creek on the very bridge where, sixteen years ago, my sister and I poured my father’s ashes into the water. I drove by the house where I lived with my mother just before she fixed-me-up with Uyen. I stopped at a stop sign on the street where my friend who drives the van lives, took a moment to study the box, lurched away. I crossed the valley and drove along Dana’s Point Drive, where, only five weeks ago, on what turned out to be her last drive, ever, Uyen admonished me for making the very arrangements for cremation that delivered her into the box. “I don’t know why you did that,” she told me. “I am not going for a while. I’m still fighting.”
I rounded another corner. Wide open country with pine and sage and rabbitbrush and juniper. Fat clouds, white as the label on the box, scurried on above me. I studied the box again. Square and plain. A box.
Once home, I placed the box in Uyen’s chair in the living room, and then drifted back into my bedroom. There, in my closet, I found one of the red articles of clothing I kept—her red velvet jacket—and I took the jacket out to the living room, gingerly draped the jacket over the box, and then turned on the television for the evening news.