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8 Pictures

The dead mountain range of tailings on the lip of the mine had sat for decades, washed by rain, and still was barren as the Sahara. From a distance you might guess these piles of dirt to be fragile, like a sandcastle, but up close youd see the pinkish soil corrugated with vertical ridges and eroded to a sheen, like rock. It would take a pickaxe to dent it.

It was high noon and I knew where I was. I bypassed the old mine road at the top of the canyon and stayed on the unmarked lane that people called, for reasons unknown to me, the Old Pony Road. All Graces streets went by odd names that had mostly to do with picturesque forms of transportation: the Old and New Pony roads, the Goatleg, Dog-Cart Road, and the inexplicable Tortoise Road. Amazingly, most or all of these also had official, normal-sounding names like West Street and San Francisco Lane, which were plainly marked on painted aluminum street signs and totally ignored. Maybe somebody had just recently dreamed up these normal names and hammered up signs to improve the towns image.

From the canyons crest I could see down into the isolated settlements at the north end of the valley, some abandoned, some buried in deep graves of mine tailings, through which, presumably, Black Mountain now ran quantities of sulfuric acid. Far to the south lay open desert. The road I was on would pass through one more flock of little houses, all settled like hens into their gardens, before reaching Doc Homers drafty two-story gray edifice.

I bypassed the main entrance of the hospital, the only one of the ghost town of Black Mountain buildings that was still in use. The hospital itself had finally closed-people had to leave Grace for a more equipped town if their problems were major-but Doc Homers office in the basement could handle anything up to and including broken limbs. He wasnt working there today. Id called him at home; I was expected.

Cosima? Cosima Noline! I want you to look. A heavyset woman in a housedress and running shoes was standing at her mailbox, shouting at me. Child, will you look. If you arent the picture of your mother.

My mother was dead at my age. The woman put her arms around me. She was nobody I recognized.

Weve been so anxious to see you! she said at a convincing decibel level. Viola told us at sewing club youd got in, and was staying down with her and J.T. and Emelina till you can help Doc get his place straightened out and move in up here with him. Oh, I know Docs glad to have you back. Hes been poorly, I dont expect hed tell you but he is. They said when you was overseas you learned the cure they used on that actress in Paris, France. Bless your heart, youre a dear child. She paused, finally, taking in my face. You dont remember me, do you?

I waited, expecting help. It had been fourteen years, after all. But she offered no hints. No, Im sorry, I said. I dont.

Uda! The woman said.

Oh. Uda. Im sorry. I still didnt have the foggiest idea who she was.

I wont keep you, hon, but I want you to come for dinner soon as you can. Ive baked Doc a squash pie Ive been aiming to take up there. Hang on, Ill just run get it.

I waited while she hurried on her small feet up the path to the house and disappeared into the cave of honeysuckle that had swallowed her front porch. Uda returned directly with a covered pie tin that I accepted along with a bewildering kiss on both cheeks. I wondered how many people in Grace believed Id flown in fresh from Paris with a cure for Alzheimers.

Hed told me two years ago. I had no idea if it was the confirmed truth or just his opinion, since Doc Homer made no distinction between the two. And if it was true, I still didnt know what to think. What we are talking about, basically, is self-diagnosed insanity and that gets complicated.

Carlo and I in fact werent living in Paris (we never had), but in Minnesota; wed already come back from Crete. Hallie had kept decently in touch with Doc Homer but I hadnt, and felt guilty, so I engineered a visit in Las Cruces. God knows how long he would have waited to tell me, otherwise. This meeting was not a plan hed cooked up to give me the news, but my idea, sprung at the last minute. An accident of science, actually. Someone had recently spliced the glow gene from a glowworm into a tobacco plant, and the scientific world was buzzing over this useless but remarkable fact. All the top geneticists were meeting in New Mexico and my boss wanted me down there to take notes. I was working at a high-powered research lab; this was prior to my moving back to Tucson and falling into convenience-mart clerking. If I ever wrote down on paper my full employment history, I assure you it would look like the r'esum'e of a schizophrenic.

And in my professional upswings I had more of what passes for confidence; it dawned on me that its an easy bus ride over the state line from Grace to Las Cruces. Id phone Doc Homer.

I was astonished when he agreed to come. Barring unforeseen difficulties at the hospital, hed said over the phone. I didnt know yet that the hospital had closed; that he sometimes forgot.

You always say that. It was true, that was his standard disclaimer on every promise to Hallie or me, but it was uncharacteristic for me to tease him. Truthfully, after such an ice age, there was no such thing as characteristic. I tried out joking, more or less to see if it would work. Youll say that at your own funeral, Pop, Id said boldly into the receiver. Later, after he told me, I could have bitten my tongue off for that.

We met in the lobby of the Holiday Inn, just for a couple of drinks since he said he had to get back to Grace that night. The bar was done up in this madly cheerful south-of-the-border d'ecor, with a blue tile fountain and silk bougainvillaeas climbing out of clay pots shaped like pigs. It was somebodys idea of what Old Mexico would look like if you didnt have to take poverty into account. The waitresses wore swishy miniskirts with ruffles in contrasting primary colors. In this setting my father told me he had a terminal disorder of the brain.

All I kept thinking was that he must be wrong. I doubted hed had a CAT scan. The thing to do would be to check into the University Hospital in Tucson and get a neurological workup, to rule out other things, but I didnt try to talk him into it. The nature of my relationship with Doc Homer, which had eluded me over the phone, came back instantly when I saw him. There are all the small things you love and despise about a parent: the disappointed eyes, the mannerisms, the sound of the voice as much as the meaning of the words, that add up to that singular thing-the way you are both going to respond, whether you like it or not. It had settled heavily over our table and I could hardly breathe. I knew this man. He wouldnt seek out a second opinion to stack up against his own. Hed suffer his own doubts but never anyone elses. The waitress swished over and brought us fresh margaritas. The trickle of the fountain put me on edge, the way a running toilet will, or any sound of water going to waste. What are you going to do? I asked Doc Homer.

I dont see a need to do anything special, for the time being. Ill make arrangements when the time comes.

My stomach was tight. I felt perversely annoyed with the smiling clay pigs. I touched my lips to the coarse salt on the rim of the margarita glass, and the crystals felt like sand in my mouth, or broken glass. I thought of walls Id seen in Mexico-high brick hacienda walls topped with a crest of broken bottles imbedded in cement, to keep people on their correct sides of the fence. If they want to provide an authentic Mexican flavor they should have something like that in here, I thought.

Nobody else knows, he said. And Id like for you not to mention it to your sister.

I stared at him. I knew it wouldnt matter what came next, whether I said Okay, or Why? or Thats not fair, which is what I mainly felt. Dr. Homer Noline had stopped talking, there being nothing more to say, in his opinion. I imagined him going back to Grace on the bus and lying that night in his bed, tired but wide awake, recalling the events of his day and wondering what pathways of thought in his brain might be slipping off track. Trying to remember what vegetable hed cooked for dinner or what tie hed worn. He might be confronting these thoughts with fear, or only clinical interest. I really didnt know.

For the first time in my life then, and just for a few seconds, I was able to see Doc Homer as someone I felt sorry for. It was a turning point for me, one of those instants of freakishly clear sight when you understand that your parent might have taken entirely the wrong road in life, even if that road includes your own existence. I pitied Doc Homer for his slavish self-sufficiency. For standing Hallie and me in the kitchen and inspecting us like a general, not for crooked hems so much as for signs of the weakness of our age: the lipstick hidden in a book satchel, the smoldering wish to be like everyone else. Being like no one else, being alone, was the central ethic of his life. Mine too, to some extent, not by choice but by default. My father, the only real candidate for center of my universe, was content to sail his private sea and leave me on my own. I still held that against him. I hadnt thought before about how self-sufficiency could turn on you in old age or sickness. The captain was going down with his ship. He was just a man, becoming a child. It became possible for me to go back to Grace.

I arrived at the house, nervous, ludicrously armed with Udas squash pie. But he was in his darkroom. Not waiting. He called it his workroom, I think to try to legitimize his hobby to himself. Doc Homer made pictures. Specifically, he made photographs of things that didnt look like what they actually were. He had hundreds: clouds that looked like animals, landscapes that looked like clouds. They were pressed between slabs of cardboard, in closets. Only one was framed. The matting and framing were my present to him one Christmas when I was in high school, after Id started making my own money. It had cost me a lot, and was a mistake. His hobby was a private thing, too frivolous in his opinion to be put on public display. I should have foreseen this, but didnt.

Nevertheless, hed hung it in the kitchen, God only knows why because the man was far from sentimental, and there it still hung. It was the first thing I noticed when I knocked on the screen door and walked in. The photo was my favorite, a hand on a white table. And of course it wasnt a hand, but a clump of five saguaro cacti, oddly curved and bumpy, shot against a clear sky. All turned sideways. Odd as it seemed, this thing he did, there was a great deal of art to it.

I put the pie in the refrigerator and nosed around a little, telling myself its what a good daughter would do. I pictured these good daughters-wifely and practical, wearing perms and loafers and Peter Pan collars. I didnt remotely look the part. As I crept around the house it felt to me like a great, sad, recently disclosed secret. The kitchen seemed smaller than when I was a girl, standing on a bucket to reach the sink, but thats natural. It was also crowded with odds and ends you wouldnt expect in a kitchen: a pair of Piper forceps, for example, washed with the days dishes and sitting amongst them on the drainboard. This didnt signify any new eccentricity on his part. Hed always had a bizarre sense of utility. I could picture him using the forceps to deliver a head of cabbage from a pot of boiling water. Holding it up. Not in a show-off way, but proud hed thought of it, as if he were part of a very small club of people who had the brains to put obstetrical instruments to use in the kitchen.

The rooms were cool and stale although it was hot outside. I stepped through the living room, over the old Turkish carpet, which looked malnourished, its bare white threads exposed like ribs. Doc Homer could afford better, I heard somebody say in my mind, a voice I couldnt identify. All the money hes got up there. Which of course wasnt true, we never had much, that was just what people thought because we were standoffish. Beyond the living room was the parlor where he used to see patients whod come to the house, embarrassed, it seems to me now, at night when the office was closed. At present the parlor was shockingly cramped. The door to the outside porch was blocked by furniture I didnt remember: two sofas and something that looked like a cobblers bench. Folded on a sofa was one thing I remembered well, a black crocheted afghan with red flowers. Hallie and I used to drag that thing around everywhere, our totem against disaster. It looked cleaner now than Id ever seen it.

Magazines and journals were everywhere. His American Journal of Genetics was still organized chronologically on the shelf. That was his pet interest; theyd once published his article on the greatly inbred gene pool of Grace, with its marble-eyed babies. (Hed even rigged up a system for photographing the newborns eyes, for documentation.) The trait first began showing up in the fifties, when third-cousin descendants of the Gracela sisters started marrying each other. Emelina would have been one of his subjects. You needed to get the gene from both sides; it was recessive. Thats about what I knew. For me it was enough to understand that everyone in Grace was somehow related except us Nolines, the fish out of water. Our gene pool was back in Illinois.

Other magazines, many in number, were piled on the floor. I picked up a Lancet: 1977, my first year of med school. There was an important article on diabetes I remembered. Underneath, a recent National Geographic. There was no order at all. Though if I mentioned it hed come up with some elaborate rationale before hed admit to disorganization. South Sea Islands and Islets of Langerhans, I could see him saying, and not meaning it as a joke. The smell of mold was making my eyes water. I was inclined toward the stairs, to go up and see what kind of shape the bedrooms were in, but I didnt have the heart. It wasnt my house. I forced my hand to knock on the darkroom door.

Open. Im about to start printing.

I closed the door behind me. There was only a dim red light bulb. Hi, Pop, I said.

He looked at me, unsurprised and not very much changed, I could see as my eyes adjusted. I was prepared for frailty and incoherence but he was lucid and familiar. The same substantial hands and wrist bones, the straight nose and low, broad mouth-things I also have, without noticing much. He motioned for me to sit.

So how are you these days? I asked.

He ignored the question. We hadnt been together since the Holiday Inn lounge, two years ago, but from Doc Homer you didnt expect hugs and kisses. He was legendary in this regard. Hallie and I used to play a game we called orphans when we were with him in a crowd: Who in this room is our true father or mother? Which is the one grownup here that loves us? Wed watch for a sign-a solicitous glance, a compliment, someone who might even kneel down and straighten Hallies hair ribbon, which wed tugged out of alignment as bait. That person would never be Doc Homer. Proving to us, of course, that he wasnt the one grownup there who loved us.

I sat carefully on a cool file cabinet. He was adjusting black knobs on the enlarger, preparing to make a print. When he switched on the bulb an image appeared against the wall, in reverse: white trees, black sky, mottled foreground. Id learned how to look at negatives many years before I read my first X-ray. He shrank the frame into focus, shut it off while he slid a rectangle of paper into place and set the timer, and then projected the picture again, burning it into the paper. In the center were two old men hunched on a stone wall, backs to the camera.

They look like rocks, I said. Its hard to see where the wall ends and the men start.

Men who look like stones, said Doc Homer. His speech was more formal than most peoples writing. Who else would really say stones?

Except for the hat, I said. That hats a giveaway.

Im taking it out. He held a small steel spatula into the beam of light and waved little circles over the area of the mans hat, as if he were rubbing it out, which is exactly what he was doing. Photographers call this dodging, and the spatula was a dodging tool, though in all probability this one was something used in gallbladder surgery. When I was little I called it the Magic Wand.

The timer rang and he shut the projector off. I looked at his face in profile in the faint red light. Deep lines ran from his nose to the corners of his mouth. He didnt look well, but maybe he never had. He picked up the print by its edges.

You havent heard anything from Hallie, have you?

He shook his head.

Youre sure you dont want me to tell her youve got, that youre sick? Im sorry to bring this up, but its hard to be the only one. I think shed want to know.

He appeared not to have heard me. I knew he had. Doc Homer never argued, he just didnt participate in conversation that didnt please him.

So did the mans hat go away? I asked.

He slipped the paper into a dishpan of clear liquid. Well see. He seemed suddenly happy now, almost friendly, as he often did in here. The darkroom was the nearest Id ever come to feeling like I had a dad. We stood without talking and watched a gray image grow on the paper like some fungus with a mind of its own. I thought about the complex chemistry of vision, remembering from medical school the textbook diagrams of an image projected through the eyeball, temporarily inscribed on the retina.

I never thought about how printing a photograph duplicates eyesight, I said. Its the same exact process in slow motion.

He nodded appreciatively and my heart warmed. Id pleased him. Probably there is no real invention in the modern world, he said. Just a good deal of elaboration on nature. He lifted out the slick print and slipped it into a second tray, the fixer.

The stone has no head, he pronounced, correctly; it looked like a rock wall with two extra rocks balanced on top. Youd think it was just a simple snapshot of what it looked like. His finest art defeated itself. God only knows what was the point, but it made him smile. When the timer rang again he took the photograph out and slid it into its final bath. He fished out several other prints and attached them with small clothespins to a wire. Then he dried his hands on a towel, one finger at a time. These gestures made me think of all the years hed spent alone, doing his own dishes, his laundry.

I felt our visit drawing to a close, like a scientifically predicted death. We would go out into the light, find a little more to say, and then Id go.

Theres a pie for you in the kitchen, I said. From Uda. Who is she?

Uda Ruth Dell, he said, as though that explained it.

I mean, what is she to me? Did I use to know her?

Not especially, said Doc Homer, still studying the photographs. No better than you knew anyone else.

She knows all about me, and then some, I said. She probably knows what I had for lunch.

Youre in Grace, he said.

Well, I was embarrassed because I couldnt remember her. She wasnt very helpful. She just stood there waiting for me to rack my brain and come up with her name. She sure knew me right off the bat.

Doc Homer didnt care for expressions like right off the bat. He switched off the red light before opening the darkroom door, passing us through a moment of absolute darkness. He knew, but refused to accept, that I was afraid of the dark. The click and blackness plunged me into panic and I grabbed his upper arm. Surprisingly, he touched my knuckles lightly with his fingertips.

Youre in Grace, he said again, as if nothing had happened. There is only one of you for all these people to be watching for. And so many of them for you.

Id lived all my life with a recurring nightmare. It would come to me in that drowsy twilight where sleep pulls on your mind with tempting music but is still preventable. When I let down my guard the dream would spring again, sending me back into weeks of insomnia. It had to do with losing my eyesight. It wasnt a complicated dream, like a movie, but a single, paralyzing freeze frame: theres a shattering pop, like glass breaking, and then I am blind.

Once, years ago on Crete, Carlo and I were driving on a badly rutted gravel road to get to a beach on the south of the island. A truck loaded with blood oranges kicked up a rock that broke the windshield in front of my face. I wasnt hurt, the rock only pocked the glass and spun out a spiderweb of cracks, but I spent the rest of the day in mute hysteria. Carlo never did know what was wrong. Any explanation I could think of sounded like superstition. My dream was very much more than a dream. It had so much living weight to it, such prescience, it felt like something that was someday bound to happen.

The insomnia, on the other hand, wasnt such a big problem as you might imagine. I worked around it. I read a lot. In med school I did my best studying while my classmates were in the throes of rapid eye movement. I still considered my night-prowling habits to be a kind of secret advantage I had over other people. I had the extra hours in my day that they were always wishing for.

Emelina would not understand this. The night before school started, she brought me warm milk.

Dont worry about it, I said. Shed also brought out a blue embroidered tablecloth, which she shook out like a little sail and spread efficiently over my table. She felt the place needed more honey touches.

Youve got to have your sleep. They had a special on Nova about it. This man in Italy died from not sleeping for around eight months. Before he died he went crazy. Hed salute the doctors like he was in the army.

Em, Ill live. Thats too pretty, that tablecloth. Dont you need that?

Are you kidding? Since Grammy joined Stitch and Bitch shes been embroidering borders on the dish rags. What happens if you just lie in bed and count backward from ninety-nine? Thats what I tell the boys to do when they cant settle down.

Insomnias different, I said. It was hard to explain this to people. You know the light that comes on when you open the refrigerator door? Just imagine it stays on all the time, even after you close the door. Thats what its like in my head. The light stays on.

Emelina made herself comfortable in my other living-room chair. Youre like that Thoreau guy that lived at Walden Pond. Remember when we read that in Senior English? He only had two chairs. We need to get you some more stuff in here.

I was surprised that Henry Thoreau entered into Emelinas world view. If I want company I can always go over to your house, I pointed out.

Thats the Gods truth. Im about ready to move out. Tonight Glen and Grammy got into it, oh boy, she says hes impudent. Thats her all-time favorite word. Whenever Mason gets mad at somebody he yells Youre impotent! And people laugh, so well never get him to stop now.

I drank the milk. I could stand some mothering. I wondered if Id had this in the back of my mind when I moved in here.

Emelina scrutinized my clean, white walls. Codi, I hope youll take this the right way, but I dont see how you can live in a place and have it feel like nobody lives there.

I have things in here. My clothes, look in the closet. And books. Some of those books are very personal. This was true. Besides my Field Guide to the Invertebrates there were things Hallie had sent me over the years, and an old volume of American poetry-incomprehensibly, a graduation gift from Doc Homer.

Your room was like this when we were in high school. I had posters of Paul Revere and the Raiders and dead corsages stuck in the mirror, every kind of junk. And when wed go over to your house it was like a room somebodys just moved out of.

Im neat, I said.

Its not neat. Its hyper neat.

Can you imagine what Doc Homer would have said if Paul Revere and the Raiders turned up in his home? Without an appointment?

She laughed.

Emelina, whos Uda Ruth Dell?

Well, you know her, she lives up by Doc Homer. She used to take care of you sometimes, I think. Her and that other woman thats dead now, I think her name was Naomi.

She used to take care of us? Id been trying all day to place her. I couldnt believe Id draw a complete blank on someone whod been a fixture of my childhood.

Sure. Udas husband Eddie saved you and Hallies life that time when you got stranded in a storm down by the crick.

I dont have any idea what youre talking about.

Yes you do. When you and Hallie almost drowned in that flood. You were just little.

Well, how do you remember it, then? I dont.

Everybody knew about that. It was a famous incident. You hid down in a coyote burrow and wouldnt come out and Eddie Dell found you and drug you out. You all stayed at Udas. Doc Homer must have been working at the hospital or something.

I dont remember anything about that.

Emelina looked at me peculiarly, as if she thought I might be pulling her leg. It was a real big deal. There was a picture in the paper of you two and Eddie the big hero, and his mule.

I guess I do remember, I said, but I didnt, and it bothered me that my childhood was everyones property but my own.

You know what you are, Codi? I dont know if theres a word for it, but its the opposite of homemaker.

I laughed. She was still distressed by my blank walls. Theres a word. Home wrecker. But Im not one.

No I dont mean in the sense of home wrecker. I mean in the sense of home ignorer.

Oh, that way, I said. I was playing dumb. I knew what she meant. My first boyfriend in college was a Buddhist, and even he had had more pictures on his wall than I did. It wasnt anything noble; I couldnt claim a disdain for worldly things. Hallie had once pointed out that I had more shoes than youd find in a Central American schoolroom with class in session. What I failed at was the activity people call nesting. For me, it never seemed like nesting season had arrived yet. Or I wasnt that kind of bird.

After Emelina left for the night, I wrote Hallie. I had a general-delivery address for her in Managua and I asked, the way we did when we were kids leaving notes for each other in secret hiding places, Are you there yet? Are you reading this now? I told her about the dead alfalfa fields around Gracela Canyon, which I thought would interest her professionally, and I told her Doc Homer seemed pretty much the same as ever, which was the truth. And I asked if she remembered the time we almost drowned in a coyote den.

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