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.

 

3

A stories high bronze blade arced against the empty sky outside the park entrance visitor center. Jim’s stomach turned. High on its dark surface a figure, male, climbed a line of hand and toeholds, full basket of wood strapped to his back. Nola, Outdoor Research hat and dark glasses in place, a stripe of sunscreen down her nose, read from a plaque at the base of the sculpture, “The Ancient Ones.”

“Depends on your definition of ‘ancient,” he said. “If you want to talk about the lizards here or the snakes or how about spadefoot toads—”

“Better check in.”

Despite himself he admired the shape and muscle of her legs as she strode through doors and past the display cases, the dioramas of half naked mannequins petrified in plastic landscapes of sand and stone. “We have a reservation for two nights at Morefield Campground,” she told the freckled lady in the ranger hat behind the desk. “And we want to sign up for the Balcony House tour.”

“You’re okay with heights?”

“The higher the better,” Nola said.

“Two spots tomorrow at ten.”

“Done.”

The woman markered a red x on the map where they were to meet their guide in the morning. In the lower right hand corner, Jim read, “Be Aware: No Cell Service in the Park,” just above a warning about unattended food attracting bears.

“Oh, My Miracle,” he texted from last stall in the men’s bathroom. “Thank you for your loving words, for your faith in us. My terrible bad news: For the next two days, black out—phones don’t work in the park. The good news: we’ll use ESP. I’ll beam my love, you beam yours. Here comes my first—Looooooooooove.”

 

“Nothing like getting away from it all,” Jim said, back at the wheel, stuck somewhere in a long line of fancy RV’s mostly and clustered Harleys towing trailers, climbing the narrow road to the mesa top. “Oops, sorry.” He had forgotten she was now writing in her journal, leather bound, her “poem attic,” she called it. “I’ll keep quiet.”

Nola chewed her gum loudly, feet on the dash again, white-knuckled her pen into the page. He didn’t really give a damn what she wrote. She would have another book, of course she would, out from some bellyache of a press somewhere, and she would be invited around the country for readings, and she would get letters from librarians and high school teachers asking her what she meant by this or that. Good for her. She was strong, no doubt. He needed her to be strong. He’d had his success. His Dragonflies of the Prairie Potholes won the Gaylord Ellis Natural History Prize and landed him tenure. Each week he hosted a local NPR Nature’s Voices call-in show. His founded the Life Cycle String Band, which now played close to two-dozen environmental-ed public school shows a year. Noor joined on fiddle. Just last spring—

Nola capped her pen when he made the right turn up a ridge. Tucked her journal into her pack. Rested her ringed hand on the console between them. He inhaled, nearly closed her fingers in his. Good god, the habits of the body. Exhaled. “The campground’s like miles from the cliff houses.”

“Stop here first,” she said at the lane to Morefield Village. “Ice and milk.” A magpie flickered over.

One parking space remained alongside the long low building, Camp Store, Knife Edge Café. A hand-lettered sheet taped to the store door, read, “NEW: Only cell service in the park. Free Wi-Fi.” Jim latched himself in the one stall of the men’s bathroom, but he had no bars. The Wi-Fi, “CliffHouse,” would not connect. Jim’s muscles tightened. “Fuck.”

Nola stood in the chips’ aisle talking to a tall, craggy man with a ponytail. The man held out his hand at the end of an arm sleeved in inky vines. “Gunter,” he said in what sounded like a fake German accent. “I just tell your dynamite wife we have bonfire at dark, campsite eight, RV loop.”

“We’re tenters.”

“Parachoot in to join wit us. We are tame. Don’t miss big beer jolt at twenny-six hunnert meters.”

Jim had not erected their decade-old dome tent for two years, and sand from their one night in the Badlands’ primitive campsite, a way-stop on their vacation to visit Jerome in Bozeman, still powdered the floor. Phoebe had slept in the car, afraid of ticks, she said, but in the morning, just after sunrise, he found her alongside a dry creek bed watching a herd of bison grazing a golden slope of grasses. She whispered, “How old is that? Geez, Dad. The Serengeti. It could be.”

“Here.” Nola handed him a whiskbroom and dust pan.

“Right. Right.”

By the time he finished inflating their Thermarests, rolling out their bags, hanging their Black Diamond battery lanterns, Nola had unloaded their cooler and their plastic “mess” box, hooked the propane canister to the Coleman stove, unfolded their chairs, and gone. “So be it,” he said. He spit a crater in red dust, checked his phone. Shut it off. Hot. The dry air parched his mouth, nose, and eyes—in a good way, an out-of-the-Midwest, bring-on-the-change way. He and Noor would move west, Taos maybe. He unscrewed the Evan Williams, lifted the bottle to the sinking sun: “To the next life.”

Fresh out of undergrad Jim had been a summer ranger at Bandelier outside Los Alamos. Fought his acrophobia to guide through those cliff houses, every detail adrenaline sharpened. Western tanagers. Pictographs. Lichen. Cholla. Yucca. Juniper. His first tarantula. Horned toads. All a stone’s throw from the birthplace of the bomb. His only time back? A nostalgic honeymoon outing with Nola three months along.

He and Noor would camp in Bandelier, hike Frijoles Canyon, swim naked in the Rio Grande, drink Don Julio, smoke weed and screw like coyotes in the mountain dark. Hell, she started it—two months before Phoebe went to treatment. She kissed him, sought him out at his prairie field plot. She said, “My grandmum told me this was right.”

“Your grandmother?”

“More like my sister. We confide. She said if I kissed you I would know instantly.”

 

4

On his fourth slug of Evan Williams, Jim, now barefoot, slouched in a creaky aluminum chair, raised his hand to each vehicle that rumbled past on the campground loop. Mostly couples. Mostly young couples, except for the loner here and there in some old pickup or van, straw hat pulled low, stroking his mustache, maybe with a mongrel leering out too. Jim and Noor would get a dog. A pair of doves cooed from the long-shadowed scrub.

Maybe Nola went back to the store—for gum, more chocolate, pads—got locked in a conversation. Nola, so damn self-sufficient, would do fine without him, would likely never remarry and become like a literary guru in some wild outpost, maybe northern Minnesota where they’d camped with the kids. She’d publish at least one book crucifying him and that would be that—probably win another Pulitzer.

He tugged on his socks, his boots, circled back on the campground loop, past five campsites, tents pitched, cheery people gathered at picnic tables, crouched by snapping fires—in this heat. Score one for evolutionary psychology. When he turned down the trail to the store, a whiptail nearly dashed across his boots. Something large moved to his left through the brush. A bear? The darkness deepened over the ground, but the sky remained a radiant dome, the sun half gone. A raven hacked its gravelly call three times.

Across the village parking lot, a wet-haired woman in a one-piece flip-flopped out of the shower building, and Jim nearly called, “Nola!” But when the woman turned, she swung her pregnant stomach, walked with a hitch.

“Camp Like a Girl Scout,” stenciled down their sides, two grimy Econolines with Colorado plates, emptied outside the store. The noisy girls, each in a merit badged vest, leaped, staggered, raced, then vanished through the door held by a man in khaki shirt and shorts who said, “Don’t mind my daughter’s troop. They’re past crazy starved.” The temperature dropped twenty-five degrees inside.

The girls jostled him as he scanned the aisles. No Nola. Still no bars in the stall in the men’s. No connecting to the Wi-Fi. “Noor, Noor, Noor,” he said, head in hands.

Arms full, the scouts lined up at the register. “Excuse me,” Jim said to the guy ringing them up. “Your internet—”

“Kablooey in the storm last weekend. Now you’ll learn to live with yourself.”

“What?”

“Tower burned,” he said, “fix it in four days.”

The girls filled the five tables. Phoebe had quit scouting after a month. “The girls are mean,” she said. She didn’t say, “The girls are white.”

Brown men and children in loincloths, along with women wrapped in hides, populated the schlock on the shelves by the door. “The People of the Cliff World.” Decks of cards. Glasses. Mugs. Plates. Illustrated tomahawks. Christ.

Heat. Across the lot three blue phone booths stood like Star Trek transporters outside the glass doors to the Coin Laundry. Jim had just pulled bills from his wallet for the change machine that must be inside, when he saw her beside the row of dryers, Nola, one foot tucked under her on a turquoise plastic chair, writing in her journal. He jammed his wallet back into his pocket.

Perfumed detergent. Rumbling washers. Clanking dryers. A tall man folded towels, tattooed arms. Gunter. Was that even a name? Gunther?

Nola jumped when Jim pressed his finger to her shoulder, her shirt unbuttoned well into her cleavage. “Oh,” she said. “What time is it?”

Gunter said, “Hard to believe how fucking dirty zis travel does.”

Jim showed the face of his watch. “Let’s get dinner going. Tuna noodle night. We’ll play some music.”

Gunter said, “I love poets. You read at our fire.”

 

“Gunter owns a castle,” Nola told him once she’d drunk from her first beer. They sat at their picnic table, prodding steaming paper plates with plastic forks in the thickening dusk. “He inherited an airline.”

“And he’s camping?”

“He and his fiancée, they rented an RV in Seattle, a big dream circuit.”

“So fucking dirty zis travel.”

“He’s named after Gunter Grass.”

“Who?”

“He quoted Rilke: ‘I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world.’”

“Sounds like an A+ bullshit artist.”

“So? All human beings lie.” Nola stuffed her plate and utensils deep in their garbage bag and opened another beer. She sat on a camp chair, ankles crossed, facing the canyon, back to him.

Over the generator rumble from the RV area above, a poorwill trilled. He fetched his mini Martin and Nola’s uke from the car. Sat on the tabletop, feet on the bench, tuned. A passing longhair in straw hat and camo shorts raised a thumb. He sang, “Keep on the Sunnyside,” his standard putting Phoebe to bed as a child. He sang, “Silver Snails and Golden Beetles,” Noor’s favorite from their band. Fingerpicked “Wildwood Flower.” All that music bottled up. “Orphan Girl.” Fuck. Nola, clutching the bottle in both hands, had not moved. When he finished the first verse of “Ukulele Lady,” she pushed up from the chair but walked past him and her instrument. She dug in her pack at the passenger side of the car, then leaned on the roof and stroked a Bic to flame at a cigarette in her mouth.

“I thought you stopped.”

“You thought a lot of things.” She stayed next to the car to smoke.

If you like a ukulele lady,
Ukulele lady like a-you.
If you like to linger where it’s shady,
Ukulele lady linger too.

She lit another. Christ. She had quit for the boys’ pregnancies. Then they had quit together for good, he’d believed, three years ago, after his dad died of leukemia. He strummed. He picked without singing: “Hobo’s Lullaby,” “Big Rock Candy Mountain.”

“Where’d you put the headlamps?” she called. “I’m ready to head to Gunter’s.”

She wandered up the road into the enclosing dark while he stored food in Tupperware, scrubbed their pot at the washstand, stowed their valuables in the car. He considered driving back to the park entrance with his phone. Instead, he retrieved from his toilet case one of the two joints Noor had given him. Huffed it in the open—hell, when in Colorado—startled by a grasshopper that landed on his shoulder. It clung, cleaned its front legs. He clutched it between his thumb and forefinger, admired its compound eyes, waited for it to dribble what his father had called “tobacco juice,” from its mouthparts, and then heaved it high. “Warp speed, Mr. Sulu!”

Smoke still snaked from campfires along the way. Tents glowed blue, yellow, orange, from the light inside. Laughter: “Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck.”

“Shh, darling.” A woman giggled. “Quiet.”

In the distance a baby wailed. Generators hummed.

A guy alone, half shadowed, read a book at a table in a white globe of lantern light. He had a long beard like God’s, like Jim’s mother’s Old Testament version of God. Maybe summers God lived by himself in a campground reading The Book of Days. How about me and Noor? he wanted to call to the man. How about them apples?

“Evening,” he said to a couple walking a leashed bulldog.

The woman jumped. “Whoa, I thought you were a ghost.”

“Close,” he said.

“Even Sherlock didn’t see you.”

He found comfort in the sound of his own boots on the pavement. Stars. A meteor broke loose of the zillion other tiny lights, streaked in the brilliance of its own destruction. As a girl Phoebe had called them “failing stars.” Phoebe.

In answer to the burbled hoots of a great horned owl on the slope to his right, five hoots ballooned from the canyon below. No coyotes. The clap of outhouse doors. The rising thrum of generators. He stumbled on a crevice in the asphalt. “Shit.” Flipped on his headlamp. “RVs Only Beyond This Point,” the sign said. “Full Hookups.”

Humps of lighted windows swelled in the black shapes of trees. Over the generators he heard jazz. He heard what sounded like a car chase.

As he passed these hulks, Jim saw no one outside. Two of the RVs towed cars. Had DirectTV dishes. Through windows screens flickered. Old people played cards. Sat by bottles. Then he heard the voice, too loud, that could only be Gunter’s: “On the Road is zee U.S. eggsplanation. You bet your greenback dollar. Travel whips you everyday new. Big truth, screw Mount Rushmore.” The voice and the music came from the last in the line up this dirt track, silhouetted in orange. The massive vehicle read, “CRUISEAMERICA.COM” above the windshield, “Call 800-RV4-RENT” high on its mural-covered aluminum side. In back a stack of burning logs glared over the faces of eight or nine gabbing people circled in chairs, waving bottles and marshmallows on sticks. Nola peeled a bottle’s label, grinned at a very heavy blond woman in a tank top, marshmallow extended to flames, who said, “My far and away favorite was your second, Arc of Territory. If I had it you could sign—“

Jim pivoted. Took the long way back. A trail of impermanence at numbered sites. Smoked the second joint lying on his back on the picnic table. With his eyes tight shut, sent messages to Noor he believed she received: “Counting down.” “Pack your valuables.” “Love has our backs.”

He half-woke when Nola unzipped the tent, felt her knees as she squirmed into her sleeping bag. Wondered only briefly if she read a poem to Gunter.

 

5

Binoculars at itchy eyes, he watched a cooper’s hawk launch into sunlight from a Douglas fir below his ridge, the only tall tree. Stellar’s jays. Caught himself humming “Keep on the Sunny Side.” Spooked a mule deer. Mistook the faint squeal of his calming lungs for distant wrens as he descended this switchback trail to the campground road.

Glinting vehicles with plates from Michigan, New York, Georgia, Oregon, already rumbled for the exit.

“Morning,” a shirtless man said, chest tattooed in swirls. He and a pajamaed woman carried toothbrushes and toothpaste from a restroom.

Only two RVs remained in their special stalls graded in pinyon and juniper, generators silent. Where Gunter’s had been, a chipmunk dashed from a spilling garbage can clustered in empty bottles. The fire still smoked.

He considered walking to the campground store, trying for a connection yet again, but they had to be at the Balcony House tour gathering spot in an hour and a half. The drive would take a big chunk of that. Their campsite as he left it, no sign of Nola having stirred, Jim sat for fifteen minutes at the picnic table, drank his fifth cup of coffee of the day with his back to the road and the sun, and sent Noor this message, hard, with his eyes closed and his hands clenched: “Believe. Believe. Believe.”

The sun blazed a diagonal across their tent when he called, “All right, party animal. Rise and shine.”

She had slept in her clothes. Yawned with a groan. Knotted a blue bandana at her neck. Dragged untied boots up the road to pee. Wearing Ray-Bans, sipped a mug of coffee he French-pressed. Chewed a granola bar as he drove the high road across the mesa. “I’ll pull myself together,” she said. “Hell of a bacchanal.”
 

 

Under wide hats, greased with sunscreen, they gathered around a tall, braided ranger, Debbie, at a turnout on the farthest asphalt loop in the park. A paved trail behind her descended into a deep canyon of red stone. Debbie smiled around every word, a spiel not unlike one Jim himself had made those years before at Bandelier. “This is a strenuous tour,” she said, “that includes climbing eight different ladders, one thirty-two feet long, sliding through a number of very narrow passages, and managing the steep trail out. There is no shame in deciding you are not right for this tour. Spruce House. Cliff House. Much less challenging. Any smaller kids are under the strict supervision of their parents.”

Nola sat on a wall, her Klean Kanteen clutched in both hands. Jim stood at the back of the group of twenty, people of all types, many he would have bet would suffer coronaries at the slightest physical challenge. A stooped, gray-haired man leaned onto a carved cane. Two overweight teenage girls giggled under a selfie stick. The fatter boy with them held fingers behind their heads, shrieked, “Photo bomb.” A girl five or six kept tugging off her Yellowstone, bear-eared hat. “Julie, damn it,” her father whispered. “Keep that on your beautiful noggin.” No one left.

On their adoption trip to Bolivia, Nola and Jim had taken their sons and their new two-year-old daughter—they had to stay in the country for three weeks for court hearings—on a wildlife tour to Refugio Los Volcanes. They had hooked up with Nick’s Adventures through their hotel in Santa Cruz. Nick drove them in a ten-year-old Ford van into a valley straight out of Jurassic Park. Phoebe, in new pants and shirt, hair still uneven in its orphanage cut, clung to his head as she rode his shoulders down a rainforest trail along a river. “Papa, Papa,” she chirped. And then he tripped, and she tumbled over splashing rocks, and never had Nola moved so fast, snatching up the crying girl. But minutes later, Phoebe reached both arms to him again, “Papa. Papa.” They hugged beside a living path of leaf-cutter ants, two lanes, one line headed out empty handed, the other headed back toting sails of green.
 

 

In two stops down the steep trail, Ranger Debbie talked about the fires that had burned through the park, about the migration of people into this area, about “their transition from hunter gatherers to farmers.” When a man asked, she said, “I’m an immigrant, too. From Tallahassee. Been here on the mesa eight years, my home now. I don’t sleep in the cliffs.”

Debbie pointed as she walked. “The Ute Reservation is just over there. The canyon is the boundary between them and the park.”

The sheer canyon plummeted, bottomless. Stone scraped his shoulder as he walked, keeping his eyes on the narrow, shadowed trail. “Noor,” he whispered in the hollow cavern of his brain. “Noor.”

People had chosen to construct their shelters in this impossible, vertical world. Fleeing what?

As Debbie unlocked a wrought-iron gate between the rock wall and a boulder, Jim saw it, in the distance above her hat, propped against the high cliff where a raven let go and flew into the sun—the entrance ladder. His breath caught, sound curdled. He nearly grabbed for Nola, who charged down steel stairs, marched forward in the swarm of kids. Jim took up the rear with the guy with the cane, who said, “My old man was one.”

“Was one?”

“Who built this trail in the 30s. Can’t get my fill of this shit.”

Nola stood by Debbie at the base of the ladder throwing its shadow onto the rock, H above H above H. He saw the cliffs, the sky, these people, in the lenses of Nola’s glasses. “Good question,” Debbie said. “I grew up by the ocean. I could swim at three or four. These people were undoubtedly born climbers, although we did find a crutch in the alcove just over there, and broken bones.” Naturals, Jim thought. Until they weren’t. “Fortunately we have a ladder.”

Did it move, bend into the sun? Debbie, lipstick bright red, showed a set of bone-white teeth. “If you are anxious about climbing, try to keep three of your appendages in contact with the ladder at all times. Of course, don’t look down.” Jim had given that same advice, nearly verbatim, dozens of times. “When you reach the top there is a platform. Go to the left through the crack in the wall and I’ll meet you.” Like Debbie, he had gone first up ladders, to show the ease with which it could be done, and to remove himself as an enabler should any visitor falter. They had to climb. Never had anyone been unable. But none of his ladders had been even a third this long.

Wind—well, more of a breeze—pushed at him. Below Debbie, Nola, calves flexing, scaled the flimsy construct of pine poles. What had she done last night at Gunter’s that added to their separation? She stopped feet from the top. Lifted both hands from the rungs. Swiveled. Shit. Cupped her fingers at her mouth, and yodeled. A long, coyote of a yodel against the powdered blue of the sky. “O-lay-ee-whoooo.” Before any sound came back, she crested the ladder and vanished. The group clapped.

“I scored the video,” the father of the girl in the Yellowstone hat said. She giggled as she climbed.

The older guy tucked the cane under one arm and up he went. That left Jim, dry mouthed, pulse throttled, staring at the dark streaks down the stone, wishing, just an instant, that he could have been part of this community that built its houses in these gravity-defying grottos, have learned to fly up these walls as a kid. He wished he had brought Phoebe here as a girl, had told her, “Look what these indigenous people managed. See the power in difference? See what need can do?”

He started up. The worn rungs held him like magnets. He yanked his hands and boots loose. Climbed. Goddamn it, he climbed. One, two, three. Five. The ladder above empty, the cliff stamped with his silhouette, he stopped. Blinked lids like awnings, his blood a cascade. He would not look down. He would not look back. “Noor,” he said, “Noor, I’m so sorry.”

“You can do it,” the old guy called.

Jim wrapped his arms around the hard poles. He wanted to keep going, he did. He could. Yes, he could. Or he could retreat. His throat squeaked.

“One hand at a time.” The old guy spoke slowly. “Just pretend you’re at home, on a step stool changing a light bulb. Come on.”

A black-beaded carpenter ant wandered straight up, past his fingers.

The breeze tasted of copper.

His knuckles might break through his skin.

“Dr. Candle,” came forcefully from above. Ranger Debbie. Not smiling now, what do you bet? “Breathe. One, two. Come on. Deep breaths.” Did the ladder shake? Was someone coming down? Nola? “I understand you’ve climbed many ladders just like this one. Think back on that. Think of this in small sections, each one a piece of cake. Come on, Dr. Candle.”

He heard an eagle’s sky-high whistle. A call that meant, This is mine. Scram.

He wanted to scram. He wanted to climb to the platform above, rush out and up, and keep going.

He wanted to climb to the platform above, squeeze through a crack in rock, strip the bandana from Nola’s neck, and see what marks last night had left. He wanted to know if Gunter would be waiting on the road ready to take her off to cruise America.

He wanted to look up the ladder and see Phoebe laughing.

He wanted to go down. Down the ladder. Then down an impossibility of stone. That’s where he wanted to live.

“Get the lunatic off,” someone said.

“Shut up,” the old guy said.

The rungs gouged at his ribs. His heart hacked back.

“Buddy!” A voice from below. The ladder trembled. “You’re fine. Just fine. Relax. I’m here to spot you, buddy. I’m coming up under you. You can climb down, I’ll be with you. Or you can head higher. What do you say?”

“Noor,” he didn’t say. He thought it, Noor. Noor, save me.

Right over his head, Ranger Debbie said, “Can you hook this around your waist?” A climber’s harness slithered over his wrist. “I’m with you.”

A hand from below clasped his ankle. “You’re safe, buddy.”

“I can’t,” he screamed. Then quietly, in a confidential tone. “Really.”

 

6

Three months later, the semester has started. Noor works as an objects conservator at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Phoebe, on a new cocktail of meds, will begin weekend home visits at the end of the month. On a marble bench shaded by a towering black pine beside the Campanile, Nola eats a sack lunch with him. Their apples are crisp. Walks him across the quad to his building. They kiss. She lifts a hand. Turns. Under clouds, white and sheer and broken with crows.

The farm-fed students see only a bearded middle-aged man in tan pants and a plaid shirt in the well of the windowless auditorium. Nothing of what he knows. He clicks the remote and pictures on the wide, tall screen change.

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