Bright Screens, Granite and Charcoal
by Jacob Cox
We lived in DUMBO in a loft with windows large enough to frame the skyline. She chose all the furniture and did all the decorating and that first morning after I could hardly bear to look at the damn trinkets and rugs and pictures and souvenirs we had collected the world over and which she had arranged so carefully in every nook and on every bookshelf and windowsill. The drapes, which I pulled across to deaden the bright summer sky, still smelled of her. What did she smell like? Vanilla and turmeric. What kind of woman smells like that?
In the bedroom I lay across the sheets just smelling her. But the tears would not come. The tears which flowed like fucking Niagara on set would not come and the bitter hilariousness of it made me laugh this hollow laugh and then I was really crying, truly, terrifically balling. That empty balling which doesn’t help anything but instead echoes maddeningly like a desperate call for help in some damp cave in your gut. Lying there balling, lying there lost, I dreamt of waking. Of waking and seeing her lying there with her hair tousled after a night of thrashing about. She never could sleep peacefully and now, perhaps she is. It is the sort of thing you try to console yourself with. You hope, you really hope. But when I opened my eyes she was not there and I closed them and I could see her face, green eyes the shade of heartbreak, lips continuously smiling, continuously plump, skin the golden color of dawn on a still lake. I could see every feature, every pore, every eyelash and twist of hair, the tips of her teeth and the suggestion of a warm tongue behind them. She whispers, good morning, baby. Did you dream of me?
There was everything to deal with. You don’t realize until it happens. There were lawyers to contend with, charges to press, funeral directors to direct, invitations to extend. That first day after it took all the courage I had. She would be cremated, as she had told me she desired. She wanted her ashes scattered in Yosemite, where we had been young and poor and unknown with nothing but the whole world ahead of us. But how could you turn such a person to ashes? I needed to see her one more time. I needed to say goodbye one more time.
I left our home and went down the elevator and out into bright sunlight. We should never forget we are still little, she said. Tiny, she said. Almost nothing, she said. We were at the Ahwahnee looking up at a sky swarming with stars, and with the falling ones we made no wishes because we had everything. But she was right. We are so small she might die and the sky might be blue the day after.
I walked with my head down, I needed a cab eventually but I had to walk a while, I had to walk it away and with a cap pulled low over my eyes I did not attract much attention. At the street corner I looked up. A paparazzo smiled the cruel smile of small victories; he had his shot, finally. The famous actor in mourning. I was too worn out to care. I turned and my gaze settled on a news stand and wouldn’t you know it.
Front page of the fucking Post.
I waved down the first free cab. The driver was Arab. I saw a flash of recognition in the mirror but he was generous, he only asked me, where to? I told him Bleecker and Macdougal and we turned around to reach the Brooklyn Bridge and going over I watched the river flash behind the wires and all the tugboats and ferries and the like. It was Sunday and traffic was light. I buried her on a Wednesday. It was a beautiful service. People said very pretty things. She was a very lovely woman and I adored her and she used to smell like vanilla and turmeric. After they were all gone I sat down in the dirt next to her grave. There was nothing in the grave. She was dust in the urn in my hands but I stayed there a long while because it made me feel close to her.
It didn’t rain or anything trite. Perfect weather had settled over the entire Northeast.
Flying to Merced the plane passed over the Sierra Nevadas. The long spine of mountains ran as far as I could see in either direction, peaks capped in snow, the range’s green meadows and lakes tiny from such a great height. It is hard to think she is gone. You lose your mother, your father. Those deaths are gut-wrenching, but you expect them. They are eventualities. Nobody cheats it in the end. But to die doing something as ordinary as crossing the road…When I got the call, I listened feeling this great churning, this great…I can’t explain it. It was as if everything had been washed out inside of me. But I knew the feeling at the hospital. Anger. Pure red anger and then guilt. There she was with a blue sheet pulled up to her chin. She must have been in horrible pain. Her face was contorted strangely and I could tell, just because they had never looked like that, that someone had pulled her eyelids down over her eyes.
I had a rental car waiting. I didn’t waste any time. I got on 140 and cruised not really feeling the road. Past Briceburg were the foothills and the steady yellow grasses, marked with jagged slabs of granite like gravestones, eventually gave way to pine forest. The road bent and curved uphill and the road was well paved and on certain bends there were great vistas to the north. I stopped at one of the viewpoints and smoked a cigarette and looked down at a wide area black after a forest fire. Stumps of trees poked up through an ashy wasteland and the dry air smelled of charcoal. I stood there a long while. Then I got back in the car. Soon the real mountains began. With the windows down it was chill and the air smelled fresh and of pine trees and what was left of Miranda was in the obsidian urn on the passenger seat.
I drove all the way to the Ahwahnee, stopping only to pay the park entrance fee. The ranger did not recognize me. He looked the sort that had been in the wilderness too long and all he wanted to know was whether I would be hiking. I said yes, up toward Ten Lakes. He nodded and said to make sure to register at the ranger station and then he waved me through.
The staff at the Ahwahnee acted very professionally. They spoke no word about anything beyond the reservation and a bellboy showed me up to a handsome room. It was on the top floor and gave out over the valley. A good, clean room in a beautiful hotel. I called down for a bottle of Macallan 30, a bucket of ice and soda. And while I lay in bed waiting for it to come up I thought of what she always said about my whiskey drinking. That I drank it as a girl might. That, at most, one adds a splash of water. So as not to disturb the delicate flavors and aroma. She never meant it but she liked to tease me and I liked it when she teased me and no matter how I drank it, she would always steal a sip. Maybe to remind me I was hers.
When the boy came up in his formal whites I tipped him and uncorked the bottle and fixed a drink. I opened the doors and went to stand on the balcony. The temperature was cooling rapidly. The days were still long in mid-summer and I stood there for a long time, drinking my whiskey, watching the light fade over the valley and the impossible granite monoliths. There was Half Dome and Yosemite Falls. The crowds of people on the valley floor below. Despite them, it was quiet and it was very quiet in the night under the stars and in bed without Miranda tossing and turning next to me.
I had had to drink to make it through the night yet I woke early and fresh the next morning. Down in the dining hall there were only a few older couples. I sat down and ordered a big meal and halfway through a youngish woman came over. She said exactly what I had known she was going to say the moment I set eyes on her. A look of genuine concern on her plain features, though she didn’t know me. I let her go on without really looking at her and after her speech I said thank you, but please I just want to be alone. TMZ would get a hold of her, no doubt. And after that the meal was sort of ruined. I got up and went back to the room and looked at myself in the mirror. I had almost a week of beard but, perhaps because I knew my own face so well, it wasn’t much of a disguise. My bag was already packed and all I had to do was pull a cap down low over my eyes.
The valet brought my car around. I tipped him and he said thank you, sir, and by nine, having stopped at the ranger station, I was at the trailhead. I crossed over the O'Shaughnessy Dam feeling very physically fit and mentally drained and by the time I arrived at the steep switchbacks on the trail up toward Ten Lakes I was in a fine rhythm. We had not been to Yosemite in so long. We had not been to Hetch Hetchy in even longer. And the day was very hot and I was sweating and it felt good to switch everything off and plod uphill like a mule, head down, mind erased to zero, the scent of the lake below and the dust and the pine trees thick around, and only the occasional hiker coming the other direction.
Even after all the years the trail was well known to me. Half a mile past the switchbacks a little deer trail cut through the thickets and died off at the beginning of the massive granite slabs. My father had known this part of the park as well as anybody. He had taken me often as a boy and I had taken Miranda and now it was just me left. I felt absolutely alone, bushwhacking through manzanita and shrub grasses, keeping the ridgeline to my left. No trees grew up from the bare granite and the sun was bright directly overhead. The sunlight had physical weight and I was glad to come upon forest again. It meant I was close. Now it became a matter of locating one of the streams which fed the falls, streams which might be dry after the drought. So I passed carefully through the quiet forest, a few blue jays in the fir and cedar, the sunlight filtering in blotches through the canopy. The forest floor was springy and all the leaves of the trees were dry and brittle. Underfoot they crackled like the beginnings of a fire and there was nobody at all around. It felt very good to be alone, far away from the well-wishers and cameras, but I wished Miranda were here.
After a mile or so I came to a meadow. I stopped in the shade of a big oak tree and drank water mixed with Kool-Aid and cut some salami and cheese and wrapped it in a flour tortilla. It was very hot and bright but in the shade it was pleasant. Over the meadow a few butterflies floated and I sat there a long while, just thinking of her. I heard a small rustle from across the meadow and it was a large doe stepping out of the forest. She stood at the edge of the meadow, looking nervously around. She did not notice me. A moment later a fawn joined her. We had always been talking of children. We were always almost ready for them. And I guess it is just one of those things. When they take something from you, they take as much as they can get away with. And she had never told me she was a month pregnant. Maybe she didn’t even know herself. Or maybe she was waiting to surprise me.
The wind picked briefly up and the branches groaned in the forest and the doe darted and the fawn followed on her heels. I took another drink of Kool-Aid and got up and walked around the meadow and located the thin dry streambed. I followed it back toward the direction of the reservoir, climbing over a few large boulders and squeezing through thick undergrowth and sooner than I had expected I arrived at Wapama Falls.
The little lake that fed them was much smaller than I remembered. But it was the selfsame lake and unspoiled and still the place we had loved as much as any other. I dropped the pack and pulled the urn out and set it atop a flat rock and then stripped naked and waded into the water. It came from snowmelt and was icy and fresh and I dunked my head under and then lay floating for a while on my back, all the chill gone, just the sensation of floating, the blue sky overhead and when I let my eyes go unfocused I saw the sky and that was all that I saw.
In the morning, as close to sunrise as I could manage, I would hike up to the edge of the cliff. From there, the world falls away and there is a view of the reservoir, the flooded valley snaking away between the glacier carved granite walls. I would wait for a good wind so she might travel far over that landscape we had so loved, where we had been young together, where everything that had passed between then and now had been in that unfilled space we call the future.
But that was for tomorrow. I dried off and built a small fire against the falling dark, watched the stars burn one by one into the clear sky until they were too numerous to count. I wanted one last night with her.