The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Floreta Cook buried her husband, Cookie, in the Questa Cemetery in New Mexico. It was a good cemetery. Cookie had always admired it. He liked the sign on the gate saying to watch out for snakes, and the cemetery grounds were bright with wreaths and saints. Cookie had believed in all the saints and gods and had seen patterns everywhere. To Floreta life was chaos, apocalypse probably just around the corner.
Just before he died, Cookie had run his hand up and down his rib cage, feeling each bone tenderly, and said to Floreta, “I hope you’re happy. I am.”
Immediately after the funeral, Floreta fled for the coast. She zigzagged like a lightning bolt toward the Pacific, subsisting on Beanee Weenees, crackers, and individually wrapped sticks of cheese. When she got tired, she pulled off and slept in the back seat of her Grand Am, her Boston terrier, Willy, curled up next to her. He was Cookie’s dog, really. All five Boston terriers they’d had over the years had been his.
She arrived at Morro Bay, walked the beach, and picked up the dried husks of sea creatures, which disintegrated in her hands. She stayed three days in her car, lunching on peanut butter and soft white bread with a shelf life of forever. Then she continued north, not straying from the Pacific Coast Highway. Stay off the interstate — that was Cookie’s mantra.
At Sunset Bay State Park, near Coos Bay, Floreta took from the trunk her brand-new red tent, still in the box. She put the box on the ground, opened one end, and tilted it so that the contents slid out. Then she spread the pieces apart, hoping everything would become clear, but it didn’t. Since Cookie died, she’d been seeing the world in red: Red as in sunsets. Red as in a childhood memory of her father burning dead limbs from the pines in the spring, a huge red ring of fire behind him. She thought that if there were a God — and she didn’t believe there was — he’d look like that fire.
The wind blew cold out of the north, where most cold winds come from, she supposed. She put the poles on top of the red nylon tent material to keep it from blowing away, and she dabbed her nose with an old tissue from the pocket of her wool coat. The last time she’d used this tissue, Cookie had been alive.
A siren wailed in the distance. She thought how when she was seventeen and her father was out at the bars and her mother was working the night shift, Cookie would come pick her up in his Ford Fairlane and take her to his apartment, where she’d lay her head on his arm and listen to sirens pierce the night. They were all dead now, and she was back where she’d started, alone and afraid.
She called to Willy, that old, toothless dog, who lifted his head, then rested it again on his front paws. He always sulked whenever Cookie went someplace without him. “Come on,” she said, trying to sound firm, but her voice had no gravity. She threw her tissue into the black hole of a nearby fire pit. “Let’s go for a walk,” Floreta said with as much authority as she could muster. Willy blinked and turned away. “Do you want a bone?” she asked. She’d have been a terrible mother, giving her kids cookies and popsicles when they were sad, making them into little blimps. Willy looked at her, cocking his head and pointing his ears straight up. She got the box of Milk-Bones from the car and took one out. When Willy was younger, he’d danced for his bones: stood on his back legs and twirled around and around. Now he was too stiff to stand, but he lifted his front legs for a moment. “All right,” she said and held the bone out to him. He ran his quivering black nose over it, then took it in his mouth and chomped it in half. It crumbled, and Willy sniffed along the ground to get every last bit.
Sunset Bay Park had sites for tents and sites for RVs. It was clean and well-ordered, like a big suburban yard: grass, trimmed hedges, paved pathways. Cookie had preferred natural, untouched spots, but Floreta felt safe here.
Where were the other tents? She didn’t see one. Not even Indians pitch tents anymore, she thought, watching a Native American at the site opposite hers cranking out the sides of an old Alaskan camper.
If Willy didn’t want to walk, then she’d head into Coos Bay. She was tired of packaged food. She wanted something good to eat, something warm and spicy. She found a Mexican restaurant on the waterfront and went in. Willy was happy to lie in the warm car and maybe catch a whiff of Cookie’s scent or dream of shaking a rabbit to bits, like in the old days.
The meal wasn’t what she’d hoped for. The food was thin and stretched out on big plates to make it look like more, the salsa so watery it ran down her chin. If Cookie had been with her, he would have complained, but she said nothing. After she paid, she turned from the cash register and pushed open the door. She didn’t like opening doors for herself. It made her tired to think of all the things she’d have to do without him now.
She stood on the sidewalk, blinking in the wind, her hair whipping around her face. A man walked toward her, smiling and showing his obviously false teeth. His smile was bigger than she thought possible, the dentures huge, unnaturally white, and horrible. She pulled her coat tighter and went into an auction house, where it would be easy to get lost in the labyrinth of items. She used to like looking at antiques when she was young and old things had filled her with nostalgia and made her think she’d been born in the wrong era. But there was nothing comforting about Coos Bay Auction House, which smelled of oil, wires, and dust. She almost turned and left, but a clerk made eye contact with her, and she felt obligated to look around.
A girl handed a man behind a glass partition a small strand of pearls. On second glance the girl was a woman, and she was pregnant, her growing belly not quite hidden by her smock. Music played behind the glass, a strange woodwind instrument, as though Pan himself were back there to inspire fear. The pregnant woman asked if the pearls were real and shifted her weight from one swollen ankle to the other. The man looked at the necklace through a jeweler’s lens. Yes, he told her, they were real, but they weren’t great pearls. He offered eight dollars. “I really need fifteen,” she said. “Do you think you can give me fifteen?” Behind her a teenage boy with a cracked guitar to sell looked at the ceiling and pretended not to listen. The jeweler shook his head and handed her back the necklace.
Floreta knew what Cookie would have done: he would have given the woman fifteen dollars and put the pearls around Floreta’s neck. Cookie had wanted to make everyone happy, to save everyone, and sometimes it had created problems. If there was anything Floreta knew, it was that she wasn’t the salvation of the world. And Cookie wasn’t here. He was in the cemetery in Questa. Floreta touched a table covered with glass trinkets, sending a tremor through them.
The Indian with the camper was dressed like the outdoorsy types in old advertisements: checked shirt, dungarees, and brown shoes. Except he wore a red bandanna on his head. Floreta paused at his campsite for Willy to piss on the post with the site number on it. A yellow dog lay on the grass near the camper. It barked at Willy.
The Indian looked up and said to the dog, “Flash!”
Flash rose and walked toward Floreta. Willy whimpered and hid behind her legs as Flash thrust his nose into Floreta’s crotch.
“No!” the Indian said.
“It’s OK,” Floreta said. Now Flash was sniffing Willy’s butt. She dropped Willy’s leash, and Willy circled, trying to sniff Flash’s rear.
“I thought I’d broken him of doing that,” the Indian said.
Once, a dog had sniffed Cookie’s crotch, and the owner had shouted at the dog to stop: “It ain’t like you never smelled balls before.”
“It’s OK,” Cookie had said. “He’s never sniffed these before.”
Floreta wished she could say something clever to put this man at ease, but you had to have confidence to say something like that. You had to trust people and like them, so they’d take it the right way.
“I like your camper,” Floreta said. She didn’t, really. What a liar she was. All at once she realized she’d been a liar her whole life.
“Do you want to look inside?” the Indian asked. He swept the bandanna off and wiped his forehead. He had a full head of hair, just a little gray at the temples, and he wore it in a ponytail down his back.
“Well,” Floreta said. The dogs, through sniffing, trotted around the campsite, already friends.
“I’m Ben,” he said, extending a hand. It was missing three fingers.
She wiped her sweaty hand on the back of her jeans before taking his, trying not to look at it.
“I’m Floreta,” she said.
“Hello, Floreta,” he said.
Her fingers closed around his palm. It wasn’t damp, like hers; it was dry and scratchy, like sandpaper. She extracted her hand. Ben used his two right fingers to open the camper door so she could look inside: a bed made up with a bright Indian blanket, cabinets, a sink. “It came to me as a gift,” he said. “I had another just like this, and I sold it. I was young and didn’t understand what I had. Do you know what else?” Ben asked her. “Inside this camper I found a thousand dollars. I tried to find the seller to return it, but he’d moved away, and no one knew how to find him. So I took it as another gift. I gave half to my wife. With the rest I fixed up the camper.”
His story was a little new-agey in Floreta’s view.
“I’m sure she spent the money wisely,” Floreta said, staring at a scar on his neck.
“My wife loved this camper — I think more than I did. She spent the whole day inside it sometimes, cooking lots of good things to eat. It was more her camper than mine,” Ben said.
“My husband died very recently,” Floreta said. “I’m not over it yet.” She didn’t want him getting any ideas.
“I’m sorry,” Ben said. He closed the camper door and called his dog, who came to him and sat down. “I like this park.” Ben took a deep breath and looked around. “It’s so clean, so green. It’s not like this where I live. It’s brown where I’m from.”
Floreta wasn’t sure where she was from anymore, or where she was going.
After taking Willy for a short walk around the park, Floreta tied his leash around the leg of her picnic table, opened the car trunk, and lifted out her toaster oven carefully, as if it were a safe. Cookie had bought the oven for their boat trip down the Ohio River. He’d thought she might cook biscuits in it. As it turned out, they didn’t always have electricity, and even when they did, she cooked their biscuits in a skillet over the fire, because it was easier. But Floreta wasn’t good at building fires — that had been Cookie’s job — and this campsite had electricity, so she would bake biscuits in the toaster oven. She’d eat them while they were still warm, with butter and brown sugar, then feed the leftovers to Willy. That would be something to do.
The oven’s chrome flashed in the sun. It was scuffed and had a big dent in one side that kept the oven door from closing properly. Cookie had pounded on it to get it shut. Oh, Cookie, Floreta thought. She had to sit down. She glared at the oven. Did everything she owned have to look like it was on its last legs?
She walked a few steps and pushed the plug into the outlet to test it. In no time the coil glowed red. Why did inanimate objects have such power to move us? She turned the oven off, and the coil slowly turned gray.
Good biscuits must be made from scratch: Sift the dry ingredients into a glass bowl. Use more sugar than the recipe calls for (because there’s not enough sweetness in the world). The butter must be cold, like your hands. Chop the butter into fragments the size of peas. (Things go to pieces.) Add milk, about a cup. (It came from a mother’s warm body.) Knead. Press. Fold dough into itself. It will become resilient beneath your hands. The only proper shape for biscuits is the circle, infinity’s shape, the snake biting its own tail, the moon before losing itself to darkness again. They will rise like Lazarus. They will. Just wait and see.
That evening Floreta took Willy for a walk on the beach. He did his business as soon as his feet touched the sand, and she picked the turd up with a bag. She hated this part: it was still warm.
She kept Willy leashed because he was used to lapping a drink from rivers, and she worried he would gulp the surf. She felt protective of him now and wondered if they were bonding. Once in a while she pinched off a piece of a biscuit in her pocket and gave it to him. He sniffed it before eating, an action she equated with a lack of trust. But maybe he just liked smelling things. He was, after all, a dog. When he ate the biscuit, she said, “Good boy.” She sat on a low rock, and they watched the ocean together.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Ben was standing behind her, beside a tall boulder. He held a digital camera. “Look,” he said, turning the screen for her to see. She stood up. A miniature sunset. The camera glowed eerily in the waning light. The sky was red. He’d taken a picture of the sunset. They’re a dime a dozen, sunsets, she thought. It was ridiculous. Oh, God. She wanted to laugh.
Flash was loose and bounding in the sand. He threw himself against the back of her legs, nearly knocking her over. She was furious. She didn’t like that dog. He didn’t have any manners, no control.
Ben laughed. “He gets a little crazy on the sand.”
Floreta’s anger kept building. She’d been to an aquarium one time and seen a turtle swimming back and forth along the glass, its soft body pulsing inside its shell. She pulsed now like that.
“The prettiest part of the beach is just over there.” Ben pointed to a spot with three tall boulders. Some teenage boys were by the rocks now, laughing, pushing each other around, and passing a bottle. Three big galoots in torn clothes, full of restless energy.
“Life’s too short,” Floreta complained.
“Then you have to enjoy every moment,” Ben said.
Floreta laughed. It was inappropriate, but it felt good.
“After my wife died, I locked myself in my house feeling sorry for myself. Then I decided that was bullshit.” Ben pronounced each word carefully, the way people do when they come from families whose first language isn’t English. Or maybe he wanted to make sure she understood him.
“I don’t feel sorry for myself,” Floreta responded. He wasn’t going to convince her of anything.
“I was only speaking of myself,” Ben said.
“Sure you were,” she said. The words were solid; she felt proud that she was standing her ground. Ben hesitated before speaking again. She was in control.
“After losing my fingers I wanted to die.” He held up his hand with the missing fingers. Silhouetted against the sky, it didn’t look human. How little it took to erase us.
“One day, not long after the accident, I was holding a gun, and it went off.” Ben pointed to the scar on his neck with his other hand. “I don’t know what happened. Maybe I did it on purpose. Maybe I was just thinking about it and squeezed the trigger too hard.” She heard the sound of him swallowing. “Let’s go over to that place I was talking about.”
The tide was going out, and that part of the beach was surrounded by water. To get there she’d have to balance on the rocks. Ben picked up a bamboo rod that was leaning against the boulder next to him. “I always bring this,” he said, “because you never know what you’ll run into. You can use it to get across the rocks. My wife planted bamboo in back of our house. It’s taken over. It’s so green,” he said.
“I know, I know,” Floreta said. “You like green.” She made the words hard enough to break glass.
The red sunset reflected on the water. Anger spread from Floreta, a red ring getting bigger. She took the bamboo rod from Ben’s hands and began picking her way over the rocks. “Don’t drink the water, Willy!” she shouted.
“He’s fine,” Ben said. “You’re fine. Just keep going.”
Ben was somewhere behind her, but she’d already dismissed him as unimportant.
She made it to the other side quickly. Leaning on the bamboo, she watched one of the boys pass the bottle to another while the third climbed a boulder. The boy who had the bottle was fat and ruddy-faced drunk. He shivered and took another drink. She heard the whiskey slosh inside the bottle when he brought it down.
She didn’t believe in God, but if she did, she knew what she’d pray for. She knew what she wanted.
God, she thought, closing her eyes, feeling dizzy, the red sunset flaring on the back of her lids, give me back my old life.
No, God said.
His eyes were terrible.