The two kinds of geography intersect imperfectly. The objective geography lies down meekly on maps and charts, even when those maps detail impassable mountains and seas that sink generations of ships. A map with those roads lay on my lap over fifty years ago. When I first looked at it, I was checking it mile by mile, what was passing, what we put behind us as we drove up to plan the house we would build. Then, the subjective geography began. Those roads, welcoming or not, grew in meaning and became rich with incident. School parents, church people, people from the Grange and the sewing group, quilters, gardeners.
The roads led to welcoming houses – Fentress’, around the curve of the hill and down into the trees – too far to walk, I told Anne, too close to drive. Ann Fentress was a sweet woman, bright enough for a bright but arrogant husband. One day they advertised a calf for sale and that Sunday morning, a couple in a weather burned car drove up to our house and asked where Fentresses lived.
“Too complicated to tell you,” I said, “I’ll take you there.”
Peter came down as we were talking. When I told him what the couple wanted, he said he would take us all.
“I’ll need his chain saw today and the come-along I lent him.”
They followed us over and down and I told them I’d walk up to the Fentress’ door. Sunday morning lay on all the houses in their cluster at the bottom of the hill. It was very green down there. There was water, unseen, to put all that willow and aspen around the houses. Our side of the mountain got cheat grass and thistles. It was quiet, tuned in on itself in sleep.
I went up to the house and saw, in their front window, where their pull-out bed was, a man’s bare leg and part of a woman’s bare arm under it, moving, I thought, rhythmically. I went back to the two cars and reported that the Fentresses weren’t home.
“Nonsense,” Peter said. “Their car’s right over there.”
I wanted to kick him. I said, “They are not home.”
“They must be,” Peter said.
“You win,” I said. “They are home, but in no way to receive visitors.”
“What’s the matter with you?” Peter said.
The other couple went back to their car and started it up. At the sound, Luke Fentress came to the door, tee shirt and boxers, to greet us.
I thought you were…” I said.
“Reading the Sunday papers,” he said, “rocking and reading.”
Everybody started talking at once and I walked home by myself. Lives are opaque. Five years later, they divorced. He left that house they had built and she went down mountain to Denver with the kids. We had been close, Anne and I, and the road there closed away. I never went on it again. It had never been wide enough to be given a name.
Berriens – they lived on a road named after them that led down into a pasture where I got Oregon grapes and chokecherries, nettles for tea, orache. Horses pastured there and one afternoon I went down for some wild chives and saw Bright Promise, Selena Berrien’s beautiful mare. The horse was standing spraddle-legged and I went over to see, calling her name so as not to spook her.
She was nickering slightly, shifting weight that was almost like jiggling. I had little knowledge of horses, but I thought I should go up. I didn’t want to seem stupid, but muttering to myself, I went up the hill to the house. “Selena?”
At the door, “Come on in,” I heard. She had been in back of the house and came to see me, a little flumed and breathless, “Sit down an I’ll pour us some coffee.”
“It’s about Promise, down there in the pasture.” She shot an intense look at me. “I’m not sure, ” I said, ” but she’s…” I mimed the horse’s stance.
Selena got up. “She’s not due for two weeks,” she said. “She should have been in the barn. Come on. Maybe there’s still time to get her there.”
We ran down into the pasture and saw Bright Promise moving in a clumsy dance, shaking and kicking at the vegetation she had torn up in her anguish. “Go call the vet,” Selena told me. I turned and ran back up the hill, into her house. I got the small phone book from the shelf she had made. Doc Springer was out. I left a message and went back down to the pasture. By that time, the plowed up area was a circle, in the middle of which were Selena and Promise, who was dragging a half-born colt behind her.
We went through all the moves and details of a ruined premature delivery. I never drove on that road afterward without remembering the hot sun on us as Selena tried to unhook the colt’s back legs from where they were lodged somewhere up inside the mare. When the vet came, things got bloodier. I did what he told me to do, anchoring him, while he pushed and pulled and Selena held Bright Promise’s head.
What did we do after that? I know the colt died. I’ve let that part go. Perhaps the intensity of what we had been through took up all the place in my memory allotted to that hot, summer day.
I was on that road last week, having had no business there for thirty years. Selena’s house had been scraped away after her death that year and a huge place was built on the site. The structure took up what had been the hedges of chokecherries we had both replanted from where we had found them and worked over an watered for jelly and wine. The land below, that once was pasture, had been quartered and quartered again. Roads had been placed there and each patch carried a house of great dimensions, not an acre of ground between them. No one planted; they all had rocks and xeriscape, allowing no wild space and no gathering by them or by me.
I stopped the car and sat in it, wondering why I had come this way, and began to weep. I wasn’t weeping with the sweetness of nostalgia, but of something more raw and biting, plain loss. Ten roads or more were roads I no longer traveled because the people who lived on them were dead, or had moved away, and the new roads and the new houses were those of strangers with new and unfamiliar ways of living. The women in them were younger and less attached to what land they had.
A car pulled up beside mine and a woman got out, came over and stood by my car door while I turned on the motor so I could open a window.
“Are you lost?”
“In a way,” I said.
“Well, these are private roads,” she said.
“I stopped because I knew the people who used to live here,” I said.
“The Walkers have been here for ten years,” she told me, as though to catch me in a lie.
“I haven’t been on this road for thirty,” I said, ” and there were other people then.”
“Older people don’t like change,” she said, sanctimoniously. “You need to get used to it.”
“Young people wouldn’t like it either if it happened to them. When you’re young, there is no then. Then hasn’t happened yet.”
“In any case, you’re not supposed to be on this road unless you’re visiting someone here.”
“You’re right,” I said. “I’ve lost this road, too.”
The doctor I go to has told me to keep my horizons wide. He says the social network is as good as face-to-face. I think his granddaughter told him that. He doesn’t see things in terms of shared work. We don’t narrow, I tell him. The world does. Five funerals in one year, and why go on those roads now, filled with strangers? The pasture is gone to houses with no horses, the yards with no washlines. The supermarket won’t sell lye any more for making soap; I heard it’s used to make meth.
Where do they go, those who haven’t yet died? They go to Arizona and Florida. They retire to Mexico, where money goes further. They move under the eaves of their children’s houses. They go to Alzheimer’s’ and Dementia; they go to Parkinson’s and Strokes. They go to Hospice. Their roads close behind them.
“Make new friends,” Doc said. The friendships I make now are entirely different form those I made years ago. People are afraid I will become dependent on them. Perhaps I will.
Doc told me I’m in good health for my age. I told him that my medications weren’t strong enough, and that the sewing club has broken up. He seems to think my mind was wandering.
The psychiatrist he sent me to was younger by two generations. The nation he was raised in, our nation, has another geography and other roads. I could see that he thought I was suffering from dementia. “Why have you come to me?” and without my wishing it, my eyes filled with tears.
“Geography,” I said. “There are two dogs and a cat buried within sight of my kitchen window.” He was unaware that I wasn’t talking about a cat or dogs.
“You think that your pets shouldn’t have died?”
“Not my dogs and not my father or my mother or my friends – my best friends, dead or gone or so changed that I can’t reach them. I got lost on a road of strangers last week.”
“I sense your hostility, ” he said. “You think people shouldn’t die.”
“All your geography is on a map,” I said. “I should be seeing a geographer. They are cutting my roads away from me. Soon I’ll be using only one.”
I’ll prescribe some medication for you,” he said, ” and you should be tested for your memory problems.”
“Don’t bother about the meds; I’d only give them to some teenager.”
After that visit, I stayed home for four days, snacking, dozing, too sunk to do anything fully. I was watching TV in that passive way, with no real interest, when a commercial came on. The scene was cliché enough, but though I had seen it before, it snapped me into its world. The scene was a country road – one seldom traveled, overhung with trees and vines, cool, secret. It seemed to lead to someplace equally hidden. I could almost feel the touch of ferns on my legs, moss here and there. The picture changed. It had only been on for a few seconds, but for that time I had been taken away on its path and went wandering into its world without an ache in a knee or a catch in breath – restored.
That was the beginning of what has grown into my collection, pictures of roads. There are clover leafs and hiking trails no wider than what could hold a pair of walking shoes. There are marvelous pictures of shelf roads that seem to be hung from the sky, roads to obscure villages and roads from dead cities, roads paved with every kind of material from tamped mud to Roman brick and including three views of the Yellow Brick Road from the Wizard of Oz. Early on, I had to exclude anything indoors and to allow only a few city views, none with heavy traffic, which all looks the same – Tokyo to New York City. The hundreds of my pictures became thousands. Friends told other friends and soon I began to have regular hours and days to show them. An inquiry came form Gluysteen’s, a gallery in Austin, about exhibiting a hundred or so of the choicest ones.
“You must have spent years going to all the places you did to take these pictures,” the caller told me.
“I’m sorry but your information is incorrect,” I said to the pleasant voice. “Most of my collection consists of copies reprinted from many sources, and some I had professionals take.”
The voice on the phone went flat. “We couldn’t display those pictures without credits,” She sounded aggrieved. I didn’t remind her that I hadn’t asked to have my collection shown. She huffed and hung up.
But people kept coming to the house. Strangers, having heard about the collection, others asking why I didn’t put them on line so that they could be shared more widely. When I told them that they were welcome to see the pictures but that I had no plans to promote the collection, they seemed disappointed, or annoyed as though I had denied them what they thought was their due.
In the end, I boxed up all but the first and eight or nine others, one of two in each room in my house. I look at them when I am in the kitchen and before I go to bed. I am eased, as I will be when I disappear into one of them one day.
Sarah Kane’s husband has just died. She’s going to Missouri to stay with her children. She says it’s an easier life, no wind, no snow. I pass her house on our road every day. New people have looked at the house, new people will move in, adding on. New friends, the doctor says. Thank you, Doctor. Can I depend on the new ones coming to close the wounds of others gone, to remember what I remember, to be modest about their grandkids and wise about what friends and neighbors do?
© February, 2013 by Joanne Greenberg