THE SPELLS CAME late that summer and left him bewildered, muttering. He had known this was coming, had felt the tremors in his mind and seen familiar objects—his can of shoe polish and his TV remote—transformed in his hand into strange artifacts. The TV remote he found in his desk, facedown beside the calculator. The shoe polish was sitting in the refrigerator door beside the steak sauce.
His mind was being called back. He knew this and knew also that he wasn’t ready. How impossibly fragile these old paths were, the inroads that contained his entire self, how easily choked and overgrown. That same summer he began to find himself standing in the dim backyard in early morning, his socks wet, heavy with dew, having no idea what had brought him there, not remembering waking or half-dressing, left with the sensation that he had come out to listen, to wait for something.
On the wall above his desk was a map of the watershed of eastern Georgia. There were no roads or county lines, only rivers and streams and their tributaries. They lay across the surface in an arrangement that seemed as natural as the fissures in a pane of broken glass, a net of history roving above the unseen water table, the vast hornblende deposits.
His father worked for the US Geological Survey during the depression under Roosevelt, and Jim had grown up around these maps and had kept this one and had it framed. At one point in his life he could have taken a pen and paper and reproduced it in its entirety, but now he could not. Even the lakes—Weiss, Sindlair, Jackson—were becoming difficult for him, and their shapes were arbitrary. He would lie in bed and rehearse them. Some nights he could recall many. Other nights he would stir and see it there on the wall and instead of the Ogeechee and Canoochee he saw two finger-like roots that ran down from a burr in a painting so abstract it dazzled him.
The first bad episode came on his way to the bank in Waynesboro. The streets out past the hood of his truck took on a sudden shimmer before becoming slack and unfamiliar. His skin flushed—a wave of nausea, a shift in setting—as though the backdrop of a crude diorama had been pulled into place behind him. He turned, and then he took several more turns, like a draft animal, hoping his instincts might return him home.
The engine idled low, the truck running poorly. He sat through several changes of the traffic light. The muzzled exhaust amplified in his ears and Jim gripped the wheel and felt the vibrations run between his clenched knuckles. Soon other cars were backed up behind him and some were laying on their horns. A man got out of a battered Buick and walked up to the driver’s side window.
“Hey, you all right?” the man asked, but Jim did not answer. He looked forward in disbelief. The man reached into the cab to touch him softly on the arm, and Jim responded by laying hard on the gas. He drove through the red light. An oncoming car left long skid marks as it yelped to a stop, another went veering off into the median. Jim kept driving, kept taking turns here and there without purpose other than to keep moving. Soon the curves of the road softened and there were no shops or traffic lights, just fields full of soy in neat rows on either side and then he was tunneling through heavy pines grown tight against the long straight road.
Somewhere out past Perkins he pulled the truck into Blythe’s new-and-used tire shop and took a seat on a couch in the musky waiting room, his hands folded over his lap, breathing heavily, staring at the coffee table in front of him. The table was slopped with tattered hunting magazines. The eye of a dead trophy buck glared at him from the glossed page and he didn’t understand it.
The comings and goings of men, the sounds of the cash register, the bright caustic smells of burnt grease and cigarette smoke—all seemed a part of each other, kin in their unfamiliarity. But he knew this place, he realized. A story woke in his mind like a strange spar of knowledge. The story involved a younger man and a truck he could never get to run right. A mechanic spoke to him, wringing his hands in a soiled rag.
“How can I help you?” the mechanic asked.
“You got my timing fixed yet?” Jim asked.
“Did you drop something off?”
Jim gave his breast pockets a pat, wondered where his cigarettes were. He usually had some when he brought the truck in.
“What’s the name?” the mechanic asked, lifting a clipboard from the manager’s desk.
“That’s my ’58 Chevy you been working on,” Jim said, pointing with his thumb to the garage bay over his shoulder. He crossed his legs and folded his hands in his lap, and the mechanic turned and looked at the ’92 Ford parked askew underneath the front awning, the beat-up back bumper, the silver-dollar of oil forming beneath.
Jim wondered where Scott was. He and Scott Blythe would smoke together and drink coffee and talk about cars and how they weren’t as good as they used to be. Soon Scott would show up and set this young fella straight.
“Where’s Scott gotten off to today?” Jim asked.
“Scott,” the mechanic said. “You know, he’s out today.”
“Out?” Jim asked.
“Yeah,” the mechanic said, “but we’ll have you fixed up here in a minute.”
“Well I ain’t trying to sit here all afternoon,” Jim said, still patting his shirt pockets.
“Almost done, almost done,” the mechanic crooned. He picked up the phone in the back office. Eased the door shut.
A police cruiser arrived. The blue lights stunning and indistinct from the surfaces they contacted. For Jim everything dazzled. The windows. The underside of the awning. The slick of oil on the asphalt. All were of the same bright blue burning.
“You can’t turn those damn things off?” the mechanic barked at the cop, guiding Jim out by the arm. Jim was shaking some now, more fragile than before, as if the story he held were thin ice spread out to the horizon, as if he knew at any moment he might spill through the feebleness of it, fall seven worlds deep through the dark, and yet where else would he go? To what other story? There is only one story and one mind. And so he waited to see what would happen and he trembled some and the young police officer leaned in through his car window and off went the lights.
When Jim came to he was sitting in the back of a police cruiser on the north side of Perkins, twenty-five miles from his home in Shell Bluff. The officer was holding his billfold—Jim could not recall having given it to him—and looking at his driver’s license, asking him questions. He had lived in this part of Georgia his entire life, had been servicing his trucks at this outfit for thirty years, and he could not understand or imagine how this could have happened. The mechanic followed them home in Jim’s Ford and got in with the police officer for a ride back. He told Jim to take care, told him they would get the Chevy fixed soon.
“Yeah,” Jim said, “you too.”
Now the decades had become a problem. Now time could compress and dance. It could wobble and reverse like a rattle-back toy. He was getting worse. After that day he decreased his orbit, quit driving altogether save for a few small trips to stores along the same road as his house, anywhere that didn’t require turns.
A month later, in the middle of July, his kitchen phone rang. It was his daughter. They had not spoken since Christmas. Outside the evening dimmed and the cicadas rose into a bright wild hum. Several catocala moths gathered softly against the screen of the kitchen window and gave the square frame an abstract energy, a new unknownness.
His daughter had been living in nearby Augusta with her new husband Ryan, a man Jim had met last December when the couple came down for the day with Callie’s three-year-old twin girls.
Jim and his daughter had fallen out the year she had the twins, and Jim didn’t know them except in pictures. He continually studied a Christmas card he kept in his desk, hoping to distinguish them when the time came. In the card the girls are sitting in identical reindeer pajamas and leaning precariously on each other, their names scripted beneath: Maggie and Annie. If he examined the photo long enough he thought one looked more familiar than the other, but he couldn’t be certain.
The year Callie got pregnant was the year his wife Hannah was diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer—it had been there without symptoms, and had metastasized into the breast bone, lymph nodes, beneath the arms, starting into the lungs. How long had it been there, unchecked, colonizing like something under a log? Within three months of the diagnosis she was gone. For all that Jim had trouble remembering, he couldn’t forget packing up his wife’s curler set and bringing it to the hospital so that she could keep her hair the way she liked it. While the terminal morphine made her mind sputter and slope, the luxuriant feeling of curling her hair, the rhythm of that action, had been important to her still.
Callie and Jim had traded time in the hospital, giving each other breaks, but he thought she could have come to visit her mother more and he added that to his list of her offenses—getting pregnant and dropping out after he had paid for three years of college was at the very top; moving an hour away from home while her mother was sick was a close second—though he was not aware that it was his own presence, his own coldness that had made it so difficult for her, that had made her want to move away, to lurch at the excuse to get out of Waynesboro with a boy. Even in those long months following the funeral they couldn’t find their way to one another. The barrier between them seemed minor, as if it should be easily overstepped, but it could not. It had become intrinsic, like the strange flux of magnets turned pole to pole.
Three years later, around Christmas, he invited her to come for a visit. They hadn’t seen each other since the days immediately following the funeral. They were both changed; time had been a friend to their grief, had pulled them through the eye of that long year and two years more, and had changed everything: Callie was recently remarried. The twins were no longer babies. And Jim was getting scared, his age showing more now than ever. He had mislaid a discursive piece of himself and needed someone around who knew him. He needed light and narration, someone who could remember, who could tell him who he was and who knew his wife.
He called his daughter early one morning knowing she wouldn’t be awake. The phone rang for a long time and a man’s voice spoke on the answering machine and Jim left a long erratic message with tangents he never reconciled until he eventually ended by saying that he was sorry, though whether he was apologizing for the message itself or something more, something greater, even he was not sure.
When they showed up it was difficult. Jim had gotten the house ready. He had prepared the food too early and his daughter arrived an hour late and in between he lost focus, grew tired. His mind loosened and he withdrew into himself and the smile he had been planning withered. By the time they arrived he was slightly cold, distant.
Ryan’s clothing was loose-fitting. The baggy white shirt drooped from his neck, exposing a gold chain that lay in the hair of his chest. The oversized jean shorts fell over his kneecaps and his thick legs seemed spindled, without joints. Jim had never seen a man like him. He had a large tattoo on his right calf of an old patriarchal cross with script beneath that said “Rest in Peace Bobby.”
His daughter put the twins down on the floor of the living room where Jim could watch them. Callie wandered slowly through the house, picking up certain objects and holding them for long periods before putting them back down again: framed pictures, his wife’s bird book, a small antique sad-iron. I have kept her from her home, Jim thought, as he watched her tour the unchanging house.
The girls played with the set of his wife’s old curlers while Jim rocked nervously in his Barcalounger. There were long pauses in the conversation while the two men sat staring at the twins as if they were a campfire and it was late and nothing needed to be said.
Callie eventually disappeared into the back bedroom and the scene played out in Jim’s mind and he understood it. She would go into her mother’s closet, pull the string on the light, and stand there amongst the clothing, the shoes, the heavy smell of her mother’s perfume. She would examine the vials and powders sitting in place on the bathroom counter. She would try to form a voice, a presence of some kind, out of these things. The presence would escape her, fall short of memory, and she would imagine that this was her fault somehow.
Jim looked at the open doorway that led from the kitchen to the back bedroom and he longed to get up and check on Callie, to ask her how she was, but he couldn’t move. One of the twins held up a penny she found in the carpet and pursued a timid path over to him to deliver it.
“Thank you,” he said to the girl.
“What do we say?” Ryan barked, startling both the girl and Jim.
The girl looked around for her mother, confused.
“What do we say? Say, You’re welcome, Mr. Jim. You’re welcome.”
The girl looked at Ryan and pushed her hair out of her face and sat back down again on the carpet with her sister and said nothing. Ryan looked at Jim and shrugged and Jim looked down at the girls again, embarrassed. His daughter finally came back from the bedroom with a few pieces of jewelry—a locket and some rings, she said—and asked if she could keep them. Jim nodded and didn’t look at the hand she held out, didn’t want to.
Ryan had a case of beer and he drank five of them before they sat down to dinner. He went outside to smoke often, talking on his phone to friends, laughing so loud you could hear his breath whistle. “I heard that,” he heaved over and over again into the cell phone. He treaded small pieces of gravel from the walkway outside into the house, caught in the soles of his boots, so that Jim found the little pebbles for weeks, hidden in the cheap blue Berber. The young man talked more as he drank and every time he spoke it seemed his voice grew louder and higher until it rang against the walls of the kitchen.
Jim felt a tremendous relief once their car finally pulled away. Though he was ashamed of himself, ashamed to be glad to be rid of his daughter’s company, he was more relieved than anything else. He dreaded having to be around that man again. He could feel the emptiness of his house behind him as he waved goodbye to the girls in the back seat. For a long time he stood in the dark side yard looking off into the woods. In the hot creatured buzz of the early evening he closed his eyes and considered praying but he could not manage it.
His wife’s prayers had been simple statements—he could rehearse them at length but they remained permanently her own—underpinned with a sense of reaching, a desire to understand herself, to know the impossible. Jim had found the hidden nature of religion to be like a doorway sealed off a long time ago. If there is a god, he thought, his followers must be running on fumes by now.
The temptation to pray was not new but had come when the spells first came. It seemed strange or sentimental to take on so simply a habit that had always been hers. He sat at his kitchen table and smoked cigarettes and drank cold coffee until the desire faded; then he slept some, though poorly. He dreamed intermittently and it was a dream with no real facts, just fragments, scraps of nothing. Everything was abstract but imbued with great restlessness and urgency so that he would wake from the dream only to fall soundly back into it. His father’s rivers were no longer mounted on the wall over the desk but instead on the ceiling over his bed. They seemed to squirm and roll like a knot of vipers. He woke in sheets slick with sweat, the salt of his body drying on his skin.
When his daughter called, Jim was cleaning a boiled chicken. The phone had not rung in many weeks and it jarred him. He had forgotten it was there. The knife slipped and his weight went forward with it, moving across the top of the pointer finger on his left hand.
“It’s your nickel,” he said into the receiver, holding up the hand as the blood decanted into the cleft between his fingers. He wrapped up the finger in a paper towel without seeing where it was cut exactly.
His daughter’s voice came through the receiver, tiny and remote. “I need to ask you for a favor.”
Two red splotches bloomed across the surface of the towel. Etowah Lake, he thought. He was feeling good. He threw the towel away and grabbed another.
“Can I use your truck for a few hours tomorrow morning?”
“I haven’t been driving it much lately. I’ll see if it’s got gas. What happened to your car?”
“Ryan sold it. Would you mind watching the girls for the morning? I’ve got to run some errands.”
He responded with a long silence. Jim squared his shoes with the checkered pattern in the linoleum floor. He needed to answer but had never imagined being alone with the girls.
When the doctor told Jim and Hannah they were pregnant it seemed an impossibility, an echo come back twenty years too late. He would turn fifty-three that year; Hannah would turn forty-five. They had made the appointment because Hannah was having bad headaches and back pain, expecting this least of all things. They asked if there had been a mistake with the blood work. They asked to check the spelling of their last name. They asked if they could listen, if they could hear a heartbeat. Soon there were no questions left and they sat together in the examination room staring, relearning the old mixed feelings, all the years they had tried to get pregnant with no luck, the hope that ran parallel against their suspicion that it would never happen. And yet they had done it. And didn’t that prove that they were capable of anything, that all things were possible?
“What’s your husband got going?” Jim asked.
He thought suddenly about telling her. How could he say it? He thought he should say something about the spells, getting lost in the car, and then immediately he thought of losing his house, being put up somewhere, and he thought better of it all. He could do it. He could make it work.
“So when you coming by?”
He got out of bed at five that next morning, took a shower, shaved his face carefully and dressed himself in the clothing he had laid out across his desk chair the night before: a pair of khaki pants and a silky red collared-shirt, a golden eagle embroidered on the breast pocket where he put his cigarettes, two pencils, reading glasses, and a yellow Bic lighter.
He made coffee and sat down at the table with his heart pounding. He laid one palm flat on the table top and lifted it slowly to watch the waning of the foggy shadow it left behind. It was late summer but the early morning left the kitchen dim and chilly. He took a few easy sips of coffee and watched the dark pull up from out back of his house like a curtain being lifted deep behind the trees. A light growing at the edge of the world, a soft blue that rose higher as morning came. The kitchen warmed and he felt more like himself. His mind cleared and his hands steadied and he felt good.
A little after nine he heard Ryan’s car pull up into the gravel and looked out the window. Callie was standing outside the passenger door and they were exchanging harsh words. Her face was taut, her eyes sunken. She helped the girls out from behind the seats and snapped at him before slamming the door. Jim stepped back from the window and waited for the bell to ring.
When he opened the door his daughter was standing there looking loose and exhausted, the girls’ hands in hers. Ryan was gone. The caustic smell of exhaust hung in the air.
Callie said the girls hadn’t eaten anything and that she was in a hurry. Jim never ate breakfast at home anymore, just coffee. He should have thought of that, should have thought to pick up food.
“We’ll get breakfast at Lake’s,” he said. “Drop us off and we’ll get us some breakfast and wait on you.” He made his way into the passenger seat of his own truck and sat down before his daughter could hand him the keys. The girls piled in between them.
As they walked into the restaurant he turned to wave to his daughter. Callie’s smile struck him as strange, full of longing. Something was off but he could not place it. He picked up one of the girls and watched as his daughter drove away. He led the other girl slowly by the hand and the waitress saw them and got the door open. She knelt down to meet the girl at Jim’s side after saying hello. Jim felt very proud suddenly.
“My Lord, what do you have here? Oh my Lord.”
“You haven’t met my grandbabies?” Jim said.
“Are they twins? Oh my Lord,” said the woman.
“This one here was out a minute before this other.” He lowered his head and shook the hand of another little girl who was leaning into the leg of his pants. “I think they’re still half asleep,” he said, as an apology.
“How old are they?”
“They’ll be four in December. I think they’re on the smaller end of things and so they look younger than they are. I used to get ’em mixed up but now they’re about as different as can be. This one here is quiet as a mouse. Say, ain’t I? Ain’t I?”
He shook the girl by the hand again.
“Callie’s out running errands. You still have them boost-up seats?”
“Yeah. I’ll bring ’em out.”
The woman disappeared around the corner to the kitchen and the old man entered into the familiar dining room, leading the girls into the back corner where his booth was over against the window. He realized suddenly that the booster seats wouldn’t fit against the table there and turned back, scanned the restaurant. He sat down at a freestanding table farther away from the window than he normally liked.
The girls ate their breakfast quickly. They were hungry. They gripped the utensils with small fists and their eating was clumsy. Yet some of their gestures—the brushing of hair from their faces, the turn of a head to look out the window—were so familiar, so feminine, so much like his wife’s.
Annie, the smaller, the one that most looked like family, had a birthmark on her neck just below her ear. He put his hand lightly on the spot and covered it with his thumb. He petted their heads. It all felt good to him, sitting there with his granddaughters, and he found himself less anxious and he wondered what his wife would think if she could see this. He imagined her love for these girls, the power of it. He promised himself he would see them more.
After breakfast the waitress brought coloring books and a bundle of crayons wrapped up in a rubber band. Soon the crayons covered the table and a musky earthy odor mixed with the smell of his coffee. The girls colored a few pages each, sometimes getting Jim to help and at other times pushing his hand away. Soon Annie grew restless and wanted to get down. Jim helped her out of her chair. She wanted to go to the window. He moved them both out of their booster seats and sat them in the booth. They stood up to look out.
They looked out on the lake and watched some coots darting down beneath the surface of the water. Jim pointed to this or that but they were ready to go again. He checked his watch. It was twelve. The girls’ restlessness had an edge on it now and he was getting worried. The lunch crowd was appearing. A number of paper-mill workers, smelling of sulfur and sour sweat, drifted into the restaurant and occupied the tables around them.
Jim’s eyes drifted out to the parking lot every time a car pulled in; they darted to the door when it chimed. The strange look on his daughter’s face as she pulled away now consumed him. She hadn’t said a word. The thought struck him hard. He hadn’t missed anything. She had simply gotten out, put her daughters on the sidewalk beside him, and driven off. Something was wrong with that. Something was wrong with the way she left them.
He bought the girls ice cream and tried some soup and a few crackers but his hands were shaking and he couldn’t eat it. The sounds of the restaurant around him amplified: the men from the mill laughing, the clatter of tableware, the orders being called out behind him. The restaurant lost its warmth and homeliness. He couldn’t do anything but keep waiting, though something in him knew now that she wasn’t going to show.
At the end of that hour both girls started to cry and he could not quiet or calm them. It was three in the afternoon. They had both wet themselves through their pull-ups and Jim realized that he hadn’t taken them to the bathroom. He asked the waitress to sit with the girls while he used the phone in the kitchen. He called his house twice in case she was there. Both times the phone rang until he heard his own recorded voice, more frail than he thought he sounded, “This is Jim. Leave a message.”
He poured through the phonebook trying to find his daughter’s number in Augusta but as he got to the B’s he couldn’t remember Ryan’s last name, the girls’ last names, his daughter’s new last name—nothing would come and then he wasn’t certain if it started with a B at all. He returned to his table where the girls were howling. The street outside wavered, the heat twisting the air over the asphalt.
The restaurant manager was at their table now and the waitress was explaining the situation. “This morning,” she said. “I don’t know, a little after nine.”
“Jesus,” the manager said, licking his lips as his gears ran.
Maggie stuck out her arms, reaching up for Jim. He picked her up and held Annie by the hand and the manager escorted the three of them into a small office behind the kitchen. They passed through a small corridor beside the stove behind the cook. In the crowded back office the two girls wept more like two young women, silently, out of exhaustion.
The manager asked Jim who he should call to get them and he had no answer. He had no other family. Almost without deciding to he tried to tell the man what he couldn’t even tell his daughter, what he hadn’t told anyone yet.
“I’ve been having some spells,” he said. “I lose track every now and then, and then I don’t know. I don’t drive much.”
“Do you know where you are?” the manager asked, suddenly shouting as though there were a wall between them. Jim nodded.
The man got on the phone and within a few minutes a young police officer arrived and walked them out through the kitchen’s back door.
The spell didn’t start until they got in the officer’s car. Jim couldn’t remember where he lived. That one bit of missing information was like the focal point in a piece of burning film. He tried to picture his home but the image wouldn’t come. The unfamiliar was spreading out. He hadn’t brought his wallet, only a fold of cash. The officer looked at him as the questions stalled painfully.
“Sir, do you live here in Waynesboro?”
Ryan came into the county office and grabbed the girls by their arms and pulled them up out of their seats.
“Girls, come on,” he said, taking them by their hands.
Jim had come to recognize the girls but little else. Hearing Ryan’s voice was a kind of recognition, though it wasn’t complete. He mistook him for a boy who used to live down the street, sold insurance. He couldn’t understand what the boy wanted with the girls. Jim rose out of his seat and tried to hold the girls back.
“You with her on this thing? She staying with you now? She’s nearly killed herself. Do you know that?”
Ryan moved his face up close to Jim’s. Jim didn’t know what the boy meant to do. When Ryan tried again to take the girls Jim held them back and Ryan shoved the old man against the seats behind him. An officer stepped in, told Ryan to go or he’d arrest him. Jim watched in confusion as Ryan lifted up the girls, watched them gripping his shoulders.
A paint crew off Twin Ponds road in Sparta found his truck lying on its side. The men had quit work and were driving out to park and to drink their tallboys at the end of the day when the light was good and easy and the evening cool. Two ink-black skid marks converged and twisted where she cranked the wheel, ending in the high grass at the low shoulder where the truck rolled down. They saw her through the front glass lying face up on the downward window, unconscious, her legs over the steering wheel as if she had propped them there, the radio tuned to an old gospel station broadcasting from somewhere in Wrens. Out past the skid marks, lying with all its hooves on the white line—was a dead doe, the fur almost gray, several ribs deviating strangely from their natural arcs.
The bed of the truck was half-full of her possessions, the other half scattered all over the shoulder of the road and some down into the hardwoods, clothing in piles, shoes, some books and magazines, framed pictures of her with the girls, her with her first boyfriend; she had cleared everything out of the house, left no memory of herself there. And where was she going?
The truck had stalled but the engine was still hot. The men broke the front window by her feet and the smell of gas and monoxide rose heavily. They opened the door and dragged her out and laid her on a paint tarp and waited there for the ambulance. Her face was pale, the nose elegant, the skin smooth like bone. There was a tiny speck of lint stuck to her lip and one of the men pulled it off carefully, as if he were worried about waking her.
They watched her labored breathing and fanned her face with an empty paint tray. They stared at her dresses piled in the back of the truck. They imagined the floral prints against her skin, the sound of her voice. Blood pooled slowly inside her ear, an aquifer recharging, blooming up to the earth, and when they saw it they turned her over so that it ran over her lips and onto the tarp beneath her. In the distance the sound of a siren grew and one of the men, stationed at the turn in the road, waved at it madly until it turned.
When the officer dropped Jim off, Callie was unconscious, still critical. Head trauma and hypoxia, the doctor said. Jim remembered the familiar sounds of the place, the young nurses, always rubbing hand sanitizer on as they came in and out of the room, examining their gear. It did not seem long enough to be back here. After a few moments the attending ER doctor came and shook his hand.
“I told Ryan earlier,” he said, “she came this close.” He held up his thumb and forefinger as if to pinch the space, the tiny helpless seed that is death in each of us, set between his fingers. “That cab was full of exhaust. It’s a miracle she’s still alive.”
Ryan did not return that evening. Jim stayed in her hospital room for several hours, watching the heart rate and blood pressure go through their small permutations on the monitor above her bed. She wore an oxygen mask and an oxygen monitor attached to her finger tip. Nurses recorded its slow constant rise on a chart. She was climbing back from the depth she had achieved as the oxygen bound again to blood.
In the night a nurse woke him. She knew his name and asked if she could drive him home. He slept the entire ride, the nurse following him inside his house, laying him in his bed with his shoes on. He felt so weak, a kind of exhaustion he had never known in his life, as if he himself had been in that wreck, and come back from the edge. He felt the nurse untying his shoes, putting them gently on the flood. He knew he recognized her and that she must have known his wife, but he could not bear to ask. He imagined that she was one of the twins, fully grown, loving, strong. “Annie?” he asked, as he fell asleep.
He woke desperate to see his daughter, a necessity like thirst. The wrecker called the house early and Jim requested the truck be towed to a used-car lot owned by the son of an old friend. He didn’t want to see it.
“Whatever you get for it,” he said, “just let me know and we’ll talk.”
“What about her stuff?” the man asked.
Her possessions from the truck bed, and whatever could be found in the grass and woods, were all wrapped up in a giant paint tarp like a bindle. Jim didn’t have their address and didn’t know what Callie would want to do anyway, and so the wrecker left the pile sitting in Jim’s carport.
He walked out to the carport and threw back the folds of the tarp. He held up a framed picture of his daughter and Ryan at the state fair—both their faces splotched, slightly drunk; his daughter’s smile showing strain, a subtle imperceptible withdrawal from the man beside her. He put down the frame and began to drag her clothing inside, most of it still attached to the hangers. He piled it onto the sofa.
He called the hospital several times and was told his daughter was still not conscious. He sat by the kitchen table against the window and looked out across the empty yard, the grass overgrown, tufts of clover appearing, bands of light crashing through the limbs of the sycamore, strewn shadows of various shade thrusting over the grass with the wind. He saw images of the twins. He saw Annie’s birthmark and he winced remembering the horrible things he had said and, even worse, thought about his daughter when she got pregnant.
He was in the backyard standing in front of a curtain of wisteria blooming down a white ash tree. The phone sounded like a bird calling. The phone, he told himself. He ran into the house and caught it on its last ring.
He guessed it was Ryan.
“She’s up now. Won’t talk to me. Said she wants to see you.”
In the breeze the faded pink birdfeeder adjusted itself against the kitchen window.
“You need a ride?” Ryan asked
“Where are the girls?” Jim asked.
“My mom’s got ’em. So you need a ride?”
“Yeah,” Jim said. “Thank you.”
They rode out past the row-crop fields toward the hospital, the cooling tower from the nuclear plant looming high above the road, huge billows of white steam rolling up into the sky, crumpled over the horizon like cotton. Cloud factory, he used to tell his daughter when they drove along this road. The furrows raced along beside the car, pushed along like a wave, like the comb of a feather.
“You didn’t seem to recognize me the other day,” Ryan said.
“I had forgotten who you were.”
Ryan didn’t know how to take that. “Well, anyway,” he continued, “I’m sorry about all that. I didn’t mean to get so angry. I was confused, and you were confused,” he said.
“Okay,” Jim said.
They pulled into a gas station across the street from the hospital. Ryan let the truck idle for a minute. He seemed nervous.
Jim put his hand on the door handle.
“You know I would never hurt them girls,” Ryan said. “They ain’t mine, but I would never hurt them. Callie has some notion about me, but she gets confused and doesn’t know what she’s saying.”
Jim looked at the man his daughter had married. He looked young and exhausted, at the limits. Callie had found a bruise on one those girls, Jim thought suddenly. Something. To leave the way she did, to throw everything she owned into that truck, Jim knew something had happened and he regretted now letting Ryan give him a ride.
“Will you tell her?” he asked.
“Tell her that you and I had an argument?”
“No,” Jim said, getting out of the truck. “I won’t.” And that was true. He didn’t need to. Callie had made up her mind. He knew that much.
The place was brighter in the daylight, the sterile hallways packed full of gear and trays. Jim realized he had not showered in some time. He hadn’t even looked at himself in a mirror. He diverted into the bathroom. He stood before the mirror. His thin hair was greasy. Tufts were sticking out. He ran some water into his palm and matted it down, splashed water on his face and held his cool hands against his eyes. They were swollen. Nothing would help that. He tucked in his shirt and then untucked it, and then tucked it in again.
They had moved her to a new room directly across from the nurse’s station. Her name had been written on a white board outside the door, Callie Williamson. She was lying very still, an IV in the top of the hand that rested across her stomach, one of the plastic capsules near the skin full of bright red blood. He walked in the door but not much farther, standing clear as a tech moved around the bed. Her eyes were bruised, hooded, and discolored. The right was full of blood and seemed to drift. When the tech turned, Jim’s hand flinched once at his side, as if it might rise and offer itself.
He was a large black man with powerful shoulders and long hair in tight braids. Jim had never felt comfortable around such men. He gave him lots of room. The tech pulled out a chair and placed it beside the large bed and motioned for Jim to have a seat. Jim looked out the window and then he looked at his hands and rubbed them as if they were cold.
“It’s all right, Dad,” Callie said.
Jim sat down in the chair and watched as the tech left the room.
“I have your clothes,” he eventually thought to say. “I brought ’em in the house. Some is real muddy but not all. You can come stay there if you like, since your stuff is there. You and the girls, if you like.”
She nodded and smiled.
“I saw something standing in the road,” she said after some time.
“It was a doe,” he said.
“Yeah, they told me it was. I thought maybe it was a little boy.”
Jim shook his head no. He leaned forward and thought he would touch her but he did not. She closed her eyes and seemed to be falling asleep.
“I’m leaving Ryan,” she said.
“I thought so.”
“I know Mom would hate it.”
“No,” he said, “your mom wouldn’t hate anything.”
She turned her hand over and held the hand out as far as she could. In her palm were the rivers which he had named so many years ago, teaching her each name—the Tugaloo, Black Creek, Sapelo. They converged below her thumb into the Savannah Basin. He lowered his face into her palm and they each rushed into his mind, culminating like a prayer that forms high up in the Seed Lake watershed of early spring, bright and clean and harmless, and comes barreling down after the rain with irresistible power, now heavy and now full of salt in the low country.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.