I should not be at Tern's Cove Trailer Park without my wife. Claire grew up here, and she casts a soft, nostalgic smile upon the rows of vinyl awnings. She is a vegetarian, but she will hoist chicken out of her parents' deep fryer without a word of complaint. In her letters from the Appalachian Trail she mentions chickadees, jewel-weed, columbine, and little else, as if there has not been a moment's discomfort in her trek. She is tough, perhaps because Judge and Lois raised her under the constant threat of a belt buckle. Ostensibly, I am here to celebrate Judge and Lois's fortieth anniversary. Unofficially, I am here to assure them that their daughter is not leaving me.
When Claire announced her plan — a two-month trial on the Appalachian Trail — Judge drove up to our place with his gun collection in the trunk. He spent three days on the pullout couch in our basement, which Claire and I jokingly called militia headquarters, but in truth, Claire loved his visit. They spent an entire day in her canoe and came back with reports of glass catfish and yellow perch in the pond. Every night we built a fire in the woodstove and drank tea until our throats were sticky with honey.
On his third night with us, Judge led Claire and me out to the driveway and opened his trunk. "One of these is going in your pack," he told Claire. "Pick the one you think you can handle." I watched her pretend to consider each gun, running her fingertips over their oily backs and their tiny, deadly mouths. Once she made a choice, Judge spent hours showing her how to use it.
After he left, we could not decide where to keep it. Claire suggested a shoebox. We considered a watering can, a pail of Epsom salts. We thought about buying a safe. Claire finally chose the piano bench, which sits in our garage because we do not have a piano. "One useless thing inside another," she told me, lifting the lid of the bench, and there it was: a gun, nestled in old sheet music, equally silent.
By now, I know enough about Claire's family to understand that conflicts will not take place during dinner. We eat glazed ham and scalloped potatoes and butter beans. I soothe myself by picturing Claire at the table, her hair gathered neatly at the nape of her neck like a black tulip. Judge describes an ongoing televised report he enjoys in which gambling addicts are interviewed.
"Did you ever buy a lottery ticket, Edward?" Judge says.
I say, truthfully, that I haven't.
"Not even on your eighteenth birthday?" His cheeks are mauve, his teeth militant in their order.
Instead of answering, I say, "Francine is here."
Francine, Claire's younger sister, opens the door with her hip. She looks exactly like Lois: her narrow eyes are shallot-purple and she's built like a water tower, with burdensome breasts and spindly legs. She is still wearing her waitress's uniform, a black dress with a zipper that starts at her throat and ends between her knees.
"I checked your mail for you," she says, pulling a letter from Claire out of her purse. "Who wants to read it?"
"Not yet," Lois says. "Let's save it for when we have dessert."
"There's another episode of that gambling program," Judge tells me. "Starts right about now."
"I thought I'd help clear the table."
"Go on, Ed, sit with Judge. Francine ate at the restaurant — didn't you? — so we'll clean up and bring out dessert."
"Yippee," Francine says. "More dishes. I could've stayed at work."
Judge's beloved program features a hostess on a couch shaped like a roulette wheel. She introduces a segment called "Avoid the Blackjack Trap," which we watch in silence for about twenty minutes, until Judge says, "Here's what I don't understand. What in the sweet name of Christ is the problem with a telephone?"
"You mean in a casino?"
"No. I mean Claire." He mutes the television. "Take running water. What's wrong with running water?"
"You'd think so. Did she take showers at home?"
"Every day," I say. "I'm not sure what you're getting at, to be honest."
"I just plain don't understand it." He looks up at Lois and Francine, who have come in with a ring of angel food cake and a bowl of thawed berries in syrup. "I don't understand giving up your house."
Judge, a lover of guns, is not a hunter; he doesn't like the mess. What he loves about guns is the way each part snaps together. He has convinced Lois that their two white couches look best when they are flush against the wall, even though it makes conversation more difficult. He initialed his bar of soap in the shower with a table knife.
"What did you say, Edward, when she first brought up this idea of risking her life on the Appalachian Trail?" he says.
"She didn't exactly put it that way," I say. "You know Claire. She's always loved the outdoors."
"I love the outdoors. Lois loves the outdoors. You know what else we love? Safety. We love not being eaten by mountain lions."
"Stop it," Lois says.
"Snakes," Judge continues. "Black flies."
"Strange men," Francine offers.
""Look," Judge says. "You don't marry a person — you don't have a fancy wedding with a nine-layer cake and ask every one of your kin to throw rice in the air — so that ten months later you can go live in a tent by yourself. That's not what you do."
Judge turns up the volume on his program. Francine lights a cigarette and studies it, exhaling through her bumpy, freckled nose. Lois sets down her angel food cake and sits across from me on an ottoman.
"We just want to know if you two had some kind of disagreement," she says.
I tell Lois that there was no disagreement, which is not strictly true. From Claire's first mention of the trail, there has been virulent disagreement. I developed heartburn. I invented concerns about the weak arches of Claire's feet, the intensity of her reaction to poison ivy. I researched the history of metal canteens in the Frostfield Public Library, searching for words like bacterial and botulism. I began to clip newspaper stories about sudden acrophobia and routes of wolves, and I began to leave those stories on the kitchen counter in front of the coffee pot, until Claire switched to hot green tea. I began to think that I was ready to have a baby, after all, and I brought this revelation to Claire, along with one of the pumpkin chocolate chip muffins I had risen early to bake for her.
I was too late. She was already training. She subscribed to several mountaineering magazines. She qualified for a Highly Active Costumer discount at a store called You Are Entering the Wilderness. Worst, she began applying wax to her hair, which is so straight and black that people often wonder if it's one of those wigs made from the cutting floors of Japanese salons. The wax clotted her hair into dreadlocks. Sometimes I would plead with Claire to let me get the wax out; I thought a shaved head would be prettier, and I said so. Claire told me that people on the trail do not waste their energy being vain.
Francine leans against the living room doorway to read Claire's letter:
"'Mother and Dad, I am thinking of you. I have eaten the sweetest mildest blueberries of my life. You would love them, and I wish I could bring gallons of them back to you. Jack-in-the-pulpit grows along the trail here and it's so beautiful that I am tempted to stop and spend a whole day watching the sun on its petals.'" Francine shakes her head and drops the letter.
"You've turned her into one fancy little bitch," she tells me.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Look at this writing. 'Oh, I wish I could spend the whole day with flowers. I'm so in tune with the Earth. I'm so organic.' This is bullshit."
"What's wrong with liking flowers?" I say, but Francine has left the room.
"I'm going for a swim," she shouts to all of us, but I know that she is shouting to me. She is like her sister this way, her anger kicking to the surface: they are capable of walking away but incapable of staying silent.
I excuse myself from the living room, in which Judge is beginning to doze and Lois is shredding a napkin into pieces. I have seen her do this before. I have seen her get on her hands and knees to gather any scraps of paper before Judge sees them.
* * * *
Francine and I share a silent walk down the path to Tern's Cove. She drinks beer and throws the can at a skunk loitering under a picnic table. She is without self-consciousness in her bathing suit, stopping to pick pine needles from her bare feet without regard for the exposure of her thighs. Her skin is raw where she has waxed her hair.
"Sorry," she says suddenly. "Sorry for yelling at you." She hesitates for only a moment before she splashes in, screaming perfunctorily, trying to inject lightness into her voice. I can tell she isn't really cold.
My swim is brief and uncomfortable, mostly to show her that I am not afraid of dark water. Along with her beers, she has packed two bleach-thinned towels in a plastic bag, and she offers me one once we are both back on the ground. I wrap it around my shoulders like a woman's shawl.
"I wonder what she does when it gets dark," Francine says. "Just sleep, I guess."
"She has one of those helmet things with the light in front."
"Like a miner?"
We each preoccupy ourselves with dirt, mucking up our nails. Francine says, "I have to admit it, I'm glad she brought that gun."
"Well, I am." She digs parallel trenches with two fingers and pours most of her second beer into them, watching it foam over the banks. "There are probably all kinds of weird men out there." She upends the can and pushes it into the soft ground, so that it looks as if she's planted a full moon.
"Francine," I say. "She didn't bring the gun."
Claire hates guns. She hates the idea that women should avoid the trail because they are vulnerable and delicate, even though she is vulnerable and delicate: her spine is like a string of beads under taut silk. She has a scar on the right side of her mouth, tiny and lovely, a meringue pie nicked with a table knife.
I say, "I'm the one who weighed every ounce of paper, ink, water, almonds, bandages — everything! I know there wasn't a gun in that pack."
"Fine," Francine says, standing up and bending over to wring out her hair.
"Maybe she just said it to shut me up because I'm so scared about her being alone out there."
On our silent walk back up the path, I think of Claire's letters. They mention nothing that would cultivate fear, nothing that would warrant a gun. Edward, I drink a bathtub's worth of water every day. Saw-whet owls cheer me on when I tire. Looking forward to meeting you for supplies at Cortland Junction. How I love you.
* * * *
Back at home, our bed is an ice floe. Claire taught me how to make hospital corners with our sheets. She taught me how to hold her up against the door when we have sex, where to lock my hands so I don't pull too hard on her skin. She taught me to slice eggplant thin as peacock feathers, to dredge it in flour, to drown it in tomatoes, to serve it with wine, to always eat outside unless there's snow on the ground. She taught me that algae wouldn't kill me, that a pool doesn't need to be cleaned, really, unless you find a possum or a snake in it.
On a rainy night like this one, I am forced to consider Claire in her flimsy tent. She should be more protected than I am, but I am the one who can walk barefoot and know exactly where I am, exactly where the risks are. I can avoid the kitchen table without turning on the light. I do not have to worry about snakes. I do not have to bind my food in layers of cloth and hide it from bears.
When I find that there are no beers in the fridge, I wander out to the garage, which smells of hot terra cotta from a row of planters, of tires that have rolled a good distance along the roads of Maine. I am so safe it is almost cowardly. My drink is warm, and mixes with my toothpaste, and makes me feel less like the owner of this house than I do a child, when my parents' garage offered up the same brand of lukewarm beer, the same cement floor free of stray nails and broken glass. I begin to touch our objects -our lawnmower, our snow shovel - things we have purchased deliberately, things I have wanted. I touch a coat tree - Claire says it's too ugly to use - and I touch the piano bench, raising its warped lid and giving it time to produce a metallic shimmer, a menacing weight. It is empty, unapologetically empty, even after I turn it over and shake it by its legs, even after I have turned it upright and inspected its hollows with a flashlight. There is only sheet music, curling slightly in the heat.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy holds a Masters of Fine Arts in fiction writing from Columbia University School of the Arts and a degree in English from Vassar. She is the first place winner of Narrative magazine's Fall Fiction contest (2008) and her story "You Cannot Lie About a Mountain" appeared in the magazine. She is the second place winner of Glimmer Train's 2008 Very Short Fiction Award. Her story "When Will our Grass Be Ready?" was a finalist for the 2008 Georgetown Review fiction contest and was published in the magazine, and her story "Lake of the Meek" was selected as a Narrative magazine Story of the Week. Jackie is one of ten finalists in Narrative magazine's winter 2009 contest and the 2008 "30 Below 30" contest, and she was granted Alternate Status for the 2008 Djerassi Resident Artists Program. She has been a finalist for fiction awards from Indiana Review, Iowa Review and Washington Square Review.