1

To start where “the incident“ really started, Bridgette, their daughter’s freshly minted therapist at Cornerstone, in their ninth weekly family meeting, swung her naïve, judgmental eyes at him. A summer storm fresh in from Nebraska and points west blurred the already dismal second-story view of the residential treatment facility campus. “Dr. Candle?” Bridgette said, even though he had asked her to call him Jim. Phoebe, their fourteen-year-old daughter, his and Nola’s adopted from Bolivia, their brown, skeletal daughter, mother probably Aymara, in baggy sweat suit and pink slippers, folded in on herself alone on the plaid couch, raised her fingers to reach for his hand, he was sure, then lowered them again.

On masking taped pages across the wall above Bridgette’s steel desk and the filing cabinet beside it, crude crayoned figures matched his paralysis in worlds of spatula trees, check-mark birds, chewing gum clouds, and light-bulb suns.

“Well, Jim?” Nola, married to him for twenty-four years, loyally he believed, curled her bare toes into the shag-carpeted chasm between them. “What do you think? Phoebe deserves an answer.”

“Yes. It’s possible.” He closed his eyes. Opened them when the lightning flared outside. Stood the hairs up his arms. Thunder shook their reflections, still hammered with his heart as he said, “I might have done those things. Maybe—I didn’t mean to—maybe I was trying to turn Phoebe from you, to have her for myself. Not consciously.”

A muscle ridged Bridgette’s cheek. “Phoebe needs a mother, Dr. Candle. Not just a father.”

“I know that. Of course I know that, but—Nola wasn’t, she’s just not—“

“She is her mother.”

Right there, in the hardening of Nola’s features—the point of no return. With both hands she flung the hair off her shoulders. “Jim, maybe this is about what you need.” Rain clattered. Even though he had turned off his phone, he imagined an incoming text quivered his thigh.

He said nothing else for the remainder of the session. Before they left, he bent over, hugged the stiff preciousness of his daughter, inhaled her smell like some undisturbed corner of a cave. “You’re doing so much better,” he muttered at her ear. “You are.”

Nola slid her feet into her Birkenstocks, didn’t hug Phoebe, whose adoption way back when had been her idea. “Daughter lust,” she called it. She said, “Honey, stop that nonsense with your roommate. Follow the rules. We want you back home.”

Hair freshly cropped, cheeks each week hollowed more, Phoebe shook her head. “You think I could? You’re not my parents.”

“Okay.” Bridgette unclasped her hands. “You two should go. Phoebe and I will sort a few things out. It’s all right. Go on. The break will do you all some good. See you in two weeks.”

“Two?” Phoebe’s eyes had life again.

“Phoebe. Sweetie,” Jim said. “We told you. We’re road tripping in the southwest. You’re not the only one needs a breather.”

“Right,” Bridgette said.

“We love you,” Nola said, pivoted, and nearly reached the end of the hall before he caught up. She heaved the glass door open, let it shut. Glared at his locked Prius in the pelting shower until, finally, he found the wherewithal to beep the remote.

Jim wanted to say, “She’s been a therapist for what, six months? She has acne for god sake. What does she know? Can’t we move past attachment disorder?”

He wanted to say, “Who cares that insurance covers this? Is this quality? We should’ve footed the bill ourselves to Timberline Knolls, hauled Phoebe’s ass across the border to Minneapolis, therapy paradise.”

He did not check his phone. Still, its weight in his pocket calmed him.

By the time they reached home in their college town thirty-eight miles north, they had spoken to their two sons, older, biological, off in their lives in Boston and Montana, assured them Phoebe showed improvement, and worked out their menu for each of the four nights they would be camped, the first two at Mesa Verde, the second at Arches, with an unavoidable, anniversary stay between in Santa Fe. He had hoped to go to Carlsbad, the Caverns, squeeze into the darkness of Spider Cave, where he secretly carved his name as a boy while his dad distracted the ranger. Too far. Too long away. “First night I’ll whip up my tuna-noodle wonder,” he said. Why speak more of Phoebe? What else could be said? And after years of her lying and stealing and violent outbursts, no drugs, thank god, shouldn’t any calm be savored, even in this simulation of the marriage they had once valued more than any of their children? Jim was still Jim after all. Nola still Nola. Until Phoebe came home, until Phoebe was better. Then.

He texted in their second-floor bathroom.

He texted in their garage as he loaded their gear.

 

2

Day one, the 612 miles to Denver for an overnight before the last leg to Mesa Verde, a sky so wide and clear the occasional hunting raptor looked stranded, they switched drivers every three hours. His first three, Gillian Welch, Keb Mo, The Flatlanders, Hayes Carll, and Martha Scanlan on the speakers, Nola, thick red hair coiled in what she called a crown braid, stockinged feet on the dash, occasionally tapped her chin with her pen, and read and marked student final poems from her summer school course. He’d filed his grades yesterday, having given his Ecology students a “field test” the last class at a reclaimed gravel quarry park outside of town. Each had to make a five-minute presentation about biological interactions in the environment at hand, including at least eight different organisms. No papers. No wallowing in the damning data for climate change. They shared Rice-Krispy treats and his homemade lemonade. At the end he recited a passage from Aldo Leopold and told them to “fight for the world outside the human.” Noor, his astonishing, very pretty TA from Barbados cried. He graded generously.

Nola turned down the volume. “Listen to this: ‘This caged organ, my Wurlitzer heart, pumps its prison music into solitary cells.”

“Sounds like one of Phoebe’s.”

“Come on. It’s funny.”

“Funny?”

“I forgot who’s the expert on sentiment.” Sound back up.

He used his teeth to open a bag of Paul Newman pretzels, reached it out to her. She circled an entire section of a poem. “Hey,” he said with a laugh. “Hey, I’m not holding a grudge here. You hear me? You think I betrayed you with Phoebe, made you out to be … to be, well, remote. I didn’t. I just tried to be there when she was hurting. Let it go. She needs you. I get that. From now on I’m staying out of the way.”

“Good boy,” she said and circled another section.
 

 

Ninety-seven degrees, big rigs screaming east and west behind him, Jim lodged the nozzle in the tank. Before he squeezed the handle he glanced over the car to make sure Nola had entered the red and white Kum and Go stuck like a space station in this manicured wedge of Nebraska cornfield. The dry wind snapped his hair. “Noor, love of my life,” he texted with his lowered right hand. “I miss you every second. We’re meant to be together! Trust us!”

Just as he replaced the cap, an answer came: “I can’t stand this. Love, love, love.”

 

No music, Nola drove with both small hands on the wheel, shoulders back, posture perfect, an overlarge pair of Ray-Bans tight up on her nose. She chewed Dentyne, her thin lips rolling. She wore a black short-sleeved shirt printed with parrots—Nola loved parrots—that rode out over her breasts that at one time he might have stroked as she drove.

He read from the book open across his lap, The Ancient Cliff Dwellers of Mesa Verde: “More than fourteen centuries ago, in about A.D. 550, ancient Americans came to live in southwestern Colorado—”

“That’s stupid,” Nola said.

“For hundreds of years these people lived and farmed on the flat mesa top. Then around 1190, many of them moved into alcoves in the cliffs of narrow canyons below. Nimbly climbing steep rock walls, they carried stone, water and mud for building.”

“Just skip to the sites. Read about Balcony House. That’s all I remember. I was only like five or six.”

The photo itself nearly made him dizzy. “Man, all those ladders.”

“I thought that was how people should live. That’s why I wanted to show you. When I still wanted to show you.”

“Honey. Please.”

“I went home and built this teetery tree house.”

“I know.”

“I slept in it the whole summer of their divorce. The mystery is why my mom ever took me in the first place? A waitress, it couldn’t have been easy to fit it in. She just hauled me off with borrowed sleeping bags.” Cirrhosis killed Nola’s bitter too-young mother sixteen months ago.

“Balcony House,” he read, “stunningly illustrates how room and passageway construction evolved through time.”
 

 

At each stop he found a way to message Noor—“Still us!” “Still together!” “Always!”—although she did not reply. Finally, at 7:38, after they’d eaten at a Chipotle and checked into a Best Western that reeked of chlorine, on his last trip to the Prius to grab his laptop and the bottle of Evan Williams, he found a message from her that was so Noor: “‘The separation of past, present, and future is only an illusion.’ We’re already happily married. Love, Mrs. Einstein.” Her words squeezed the breath out of him, and he leaned against the baking car, his face tingling, fought the impulse to hop in and drive back.

Two older women in twin sundresses stopped, studied him. “Don’t mean to be nosey,” one said, “but you need help?”

When Jim turned out the bedside light, Nola, knees raised, back upright against a wall of pillows, still read from her glowing Kindle.

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