My family talked big game about summers on the Vineyard and the rest, but it was all too insistent, and you’d see right through. Dad said our wealth “disintegrated.” That was his word. My siblings did what rich people in crisis do: they ran aground, sank in placid, shallow shoals—the kind of waters a blind man could navigate. The catastrophes were crazed and beautiful, in hindsight. We all glow in hindsight. In my family we’re properly poor now, which is our rightful place, anyone would agree. I haven’t paid rent in years, preferring to live off the fat of the land, as I did before, when I was surrounded by my ancestral bounty. Now the land is scrawny. One thing, though—broke as I am, I’ll never laugh at rich folk. We’re all—we’re all absolutely asleep at the wheel.

I had been riding the boxcars for several years when I arrived on the Oregon Coast by BNSF freight on a crazily bright and clear Thanksgiving Day, sun slashing through it all very dramatic. Then: weeks, months—I have no idea. It was very much the best period of my life. I  fell in with her straight away, and it was—how can you possibly describe such a thing? You have to somehow see everything that came before to get a sense of it, and you can never see that. But here it was: this was what life should have always been. Obviously, it was also the worst thing that ever happened to me, too, because that’s how these things twin up.

She was already there when I moved in. I didn’t notice her the first night, just saw the abandoned old house, which had clearly been abandoned for generations. Door wasn’t locked, so I stayed the night in the foyer, and then in the morning I noticed her there, my roommate.

I went out, came back with a bottle, potato chips, and she didn’t even thank me, but we said hello and had a great time that day, that night. A few days later, it felt almost like real life: a house and a lady and a fire in the fireplace, a view of the goddamned ocean from the porch. I’d been sleeping outside so long that sleeping inside got me fitful. The house was still settling despite standing for a hundred years plus with the winds roaring up off the coast, and with the trucks passing on the distant highway, the cedar branches scraping against the window, and even with my own heavy breathing against her shoulder, into her hair, I often found myself startled awake. And always, always, she was there with her eyes open, staring at me. First week or two, it was weird, but then like anything, it wasn’t anymore. I always brought news of a nightmare, or it wasn’t a nightmare until I woke up at three in the fucking morning, and I thought about it, and with the benefit of hindsight, then, yeah, it was terrifying. And her, there, with that deathless stare.

And I’d say, “We were standing on a pier on a lake—you and me and my sixth grade Spanish teacher—oh, Jesus, it was horrible—” and she’d laugh that quiet laugh, like arrested breathing. Then she’d blink, shush me, say it was just a dream. Not much of a comforter. I think she didn’t go in for people who were weak like that. Sometimes, we made love before I fell back asleep, sometimes we didn’t.

It was like that every night, and every night I thought I might wake and finally find her with her eyes closed, surrendered to the night like I’d surrendered to her, but it never happened.

 

*

 

We huddled in our house, a mansion really, this chipped Tudor, sort of buckling in the salty wind, out there on the rocky cliff where people a hundred years back thought there’d be a port. That’s what she said, anyway, that they’d figured there’d be a port, hence all the nice old houses, but there was no port, and the rich people eventually gave up on the place, left it to people like us. Hindsight, once again—always my favorite sight.

A bit north of town, out on a rocky spit, there was this abandoned lighthouse. Very pretty from afar, but up close the rotten planks were fringed with bright moss. That’s life. Also, our house—the one we stole—creaked, smelled like kelp, woodsmoke, and mildew, and her, and me, and dusty old things that other people forgot. Sturdy place, was about as close to immortal as a wood house can be—will outlive us all, no doubt, if it hasn’t done so already.

The eves whistled when the wind was good, and we had nothing but a wood-burning stove for heat, a savagely installed stove, most likely an addition from other visitors like us, but years before. We resided in the living room, what was left of it, and never really went out into the rest of the house, which was dusty, moldy, and full of spooky echoes. The previous squatters had set up a nice little dwelling area: kitchen, parlor, living room, and done.

As a kid, my lady-friend was a ward of the state, which sounds old timey and special, but is, she said, more DMV than smooty orphans—more formica table bureaucracy and less beef bone oatmeal. She was always arguing with me, even when she wasn’t. Like she couldn’t stand the way I perceived the world, her included. I like to have fun, and I’m pretty sunny in my demeanor, and that drove her crazy. Things were really terrible, she said. I agreed, sure, definitely, but it was all incredible, too, everything was amazing and there was a lot to admire.

 

*

 

Once, late in the winter, at a diner in town, rain splattered the windows. We shared a cheese omelet, drenched in ketchup and jam, for maximum carbohydrates. It was off the off season. Eight in the morning, or eight at night, either way it was dark, and we had been sleeping in that house on the bluff a while. She was gaunt, frightening cheekbones, dry lips, eyes an unnamable color—a bit blue or green or gray or hazel, whatever she wanted, really. Whatever she needed. She was out to destroy herself, this was the story we told ourselves. We figured that out quite late, once we were there, where the road concluded. I was out to save myself. I don’t know if we ever figured that out.

“It’s probably squirrels that keep waking us,” I said, drinking from our communal coffee.

“Or an ax-murderer.”

“A persistent one.”

“Squirrel or ax-murderer?”

She just stared at me, and I guess it was clear that yes, even though I adored her so much, more than anyone I’d ever really known, even though I clung to her body at night and would have followed her directly into the sea, maybe she wasn’t wanting to make that trip. Her mouth was big and scarily inexpressive, it communicated nothing at all. She did speak, but her expressions were all inscrutable to me. Expert of the obvious, I go, “But if it’s an ax-murderer, he never gets around to killing us, does he? Just wakes us up and goes.” I’m full of these things.

She made no expression that I could see.

“What, you think he does kill us?” I was just trying to keep the conversation going, I guess, trying to locate a spark to get something burning. Clicking the flint, clicking and clicking.

“No, I don’t think so.” There was food left, but she was done.

Sometimes, when a person leaves you, it’s just that they see you, at last. They see you and they never saw you before. I had not yet had an opportunity to see her in that way, but I suppose she’d seen me. Because the way she turned her eerie gaze at me and just stared, I had to look away. Outside, the evergreens were black, jagged silhouettes against a yellow sky decorated with fast-moving tufts of cloud, advancing up the coast like wispy shreds of ghost.

 

*

 

Once, I spent maybe a week in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, across the bridge from Maine. It was summer, buzzing cicadas and air so thick you’d never sleep anyway. There was a very nice old graveyard there, not much in the way of visitors or other wanderers, and that was where I slept. Some great family with a name like Astor, or Trask, or something, they had this huge plot. In the middle: an obelisk, like the Washington monument in miniature. The family name engraved at the base. And then there were the littler markers for specific people who carried this name forward. But things didn’t go according to plan. So there was all this empty grass on their plot, and I slept there on the empty side. The grass was softer, I joked that it was because how blue blood makes good fertilizer, but probably they just paid for it to be taken care of forever. Either way, the dynasty failed, it didn’t happen—the last of their line died almost a hundred years before.

My family never got around to claiming part of a cemetery, rose and fell too quickly for that. Maybe there is a weed-choked terrace somewhere? Some shitty patch with our name on a rock, and everyone forgot to tell me that I should get myself there when it’s time to die. Maybe they’re all back in the fold, and only I’m fucked, out on the rails. The crazy one. I could see that.

She, of course, did not have a plot. No roots, no branches, no story—she would look out from our window at the white waves on the black ocean, she’d stare at it for so long, like she wasn’t quite alive, as if she was waiting for life to begin, or fully stop. But when she talked, I laughed, and when we screwed I was in heaven. I wanted more of everything, all right away. Once, she said her grandpa was a bootlegger and a sailor and a thief. She said her grandma told her. But I wondered if she was just looking at the water and thinking of pirates, and that’s where she found the idea. I didn’t believe a word of it. I’m not sure I believed she even had a grandma. I’m not sure I believe she was ever born to anyone.

She used to say that she loved herself above all else. She’d say that it was her blessing. “Everyone has something,” she’d say, “most people have a bunch of things, but I care about myself with all the unspent love I’m owed.” She said she was the best-cared-for vagrant you’d ever meet. She said, “I love myself unconditionally, and I’ve never met someone who cares about me enough.”

Once, one night when we were out under the stars on a night without clouds, and I had been drinking, I said, “I care about you enough.”

Lying there on her back, she smiled warmly at the sky, as if I was surely joking.

 

*

 

After our meal at the diner, we walked back to our house, which wasn’t ours, which was no one’s, and which seemed to be squinting into the wind, if such a thing is possible. There, I tried to light a fire in our stove, and she said, “In the morning, I’ll be gone.” She was always very matter of fact, like that. And I want tell you—I mean, I want to tell her—I want to tell you that you shouldn’t go like that. Now, I know you can’t hear—and I shouldn’t say you like that. I know I should say her, because she’s not listening, probably. I’m fairly sure you, my love, I’m fairly sure you can’t hear.

Well—okay. Let me try that again.

Acting surprised, I go, “What the hell?” Neither of us could have been convinced by me. The fire was lit, by then, and like always I was trying to get it burning as hot as possible, feeding it everything I had up front, but I stopped to look at your moon face.

She gave me a look I couldn’t read, and said, “I’m really sorry. But I mean it. You won’t see me again.”

“Jesus fucking Christ,” I said. “But you actually love me, did you know that?”

“Look around and tell me what that means.”

“I’ll tell you what—love has nothing to do with this place. But it’s a good place, and every single person who has left it made a mistake in leaving. There’s a life here if you’ll just stay around.”

She was not having it, at all,  but it was true, in a way. And the thing is—and this is important—it wasn’t dust that kept us stuck in those few rooms instead of living all through the house. Thing is, it felt inhabited. That’s why none of the others who’d taken the place ventured into the other rooms, I’m guessing. No, I’m sure of it. There were two whole floors of house upstairs, a giant basement. Basically untouched. Once, I went up to the attic and lo and behold, there were all these crates filled with clothes. Plus all this elegant furniture—very fancy, for sure. Thing is, you could see footprints from the other hobos who’d come up and seen it. I could see they’d walked around in the dust, touching all this posh stuff. And then they’d gone back down, not taking anything, and kept on like before.

“You want to be like the people who abandoned this house?” This was what I said.

“I don’t care. I just don’t want to be like me.”

“This is exactly like you, this leaving.” The worst of it was, I couldn’t have stayed there alone, and I knew it. If she left me, I’d have to leave, too. Out back into the wind.

She nodded, and for once I could read her face, it said, Fair enough—I’m sorry, I’m sorry for you, and I’m sorry for me. Her face, the freckles, the cheekbones, cold whiteness of her. She had a long neck, bony hip. I remember so well the softness of her skin on our first night together—I hadn’t touched something so soft since I was wrapped in an angora blanket for months in my withered youth—I was always sick in one way or another. I’m aging away from illness, into the madness of my inheritance, into the solitude she bequeathed to me. When I think of her, and I miss her every day, but I remember nothing alive, nothing except the expression on her face when she said she was going.

Or, no—I do keep one memory, a little sliver of a thing. It was when you left our room at three in the morning, very punctual, of course. You kissed me on the forehead, and your milky skin seemed illuminated from within, like glowing marble. All I know of love—of watching a life vanish—is still trapped there, in that room, in that moment, all pinned to a half memory of something that can’t disintegrate.

 

 

Peter Mountford

PETER MOUNTFORD's second novel, The Dismal Science was a New York Times Editor’s Choice, and a finalist for the 2015 Washington State Book Award in Fiction. His first novel A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism won the 2012 Washington State Book Award in fiction and was a finalist in the 2012 VCU Cabell First Novelist Prize. Mountford's work has appeared in Southern Review, The Atlantic, the New York Times Magazine, Granta, Best New American Voices 2008, and more. He's on faculty at Sierra Nevada College's MFA program, and is the events curator at Hugo House, Seattle’s writing center.

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