The Bog (part four)
Laurel, eighteen (Nixon president, a laundry room’s black and white TV, the only available to watch), had let Rachel, five, camp out in her apartment. Laurel had been the adult, unassailable.
Now Rachel was the adult, her bossiness unrelenting after Debbie had died. She had told Laurel what to bring to the supper, what to wear to the service, what her stepmother had wanted her to have.
Laurel pictured her Dad, squirming in his recliner, digging out his penknife to slit the wax paper on a package of cinnamon grahams. The artificial tree, the white tinsel garland that smelled like old plastic bag, the fat green and orange bulbs. On the coffee table (blond varnish, rings scored deep) sat a tub of peanut butter, vanilla sandwich cookies; the last inch or two of fluff from Debbie’s marshmallow fudge, the fudge itself. Bottles of root beer…root beer, not everyday RC, for Christmas. Popcorn.
Laurel had kept her boots on…it seemed like sense if it was going to thunder, and they might have to head back to the car. In the space of half the tent’s floor, the stealth endeavor of freeing herself got out of hand in a hurry.
“Jesus, I’m not asleep. We’ve only been in here five minutes.”
For two or three minutes more Laurel was able to sit alone, outside on the cooler, thinking of poor Debbie, her Dad—and how the bog resembled a glowing bowl, so much light of civilization to be seen everywhere along the horizon. The rain had stopped.
Rachel’s head came out.
“Is that lightning? I think I saw it flash over there.”
“You wanna go sleep in the car? I mean…we would just have to stick to the path. I didn’t really notice how far we came in.”
“No. Hey, what?”
“Vanilla cookies and peanut butter. Graham crackers.”
“Oh, yeah, dipping em… That was Dad’s thing.”
It was how little they really knew each other. They had had these holidays…Laurel visiting, happy her Dad seemed settled in with Debbie, but bored in their house, miserably eager to leave them.
The house had caught a constant rise and fall of grinding motors and air sucking along the concrete barrier. Its acre was framed by a river so-called, shallower than Rust Creek, and a drainage ditch beside a gravel road. House, carport, and metal shed, hemmed in by woods.
Her Dad with his salt lick, the baby fawns that came right onto the patio.
Not having a car, Laurel had waited at her apartment for him to pick her up. Then waited for Christmas to end, sometimes walking the property, sometimes watching TV. She had played stuffed animals with Rachel. Giving them voices, hopping them around.
Debbie didn’t cook; she set things out from the refrigerator.
At twenty-five, Laurel had told her father: “I have stuff to do, Dad. Is it okay if I skip it?”
She hadn’t spent Christmas with them after that. She had sent cards, and for a while had still asked Debbie, “What do you guys need?”
Her stepmom would say: “Oh, hon, I got more doodads than I know what to do with.”
Rachel said: “You know, you should come over for Christmas. Or Thanksgiving, if you want. Maybe that’s easier.”
“What if I asked you to come over?”
The LED lantern put out its blue oval, not light enough to read faces by. The calculation behind this silence was…of course…
What kind of place does she live in, these days? Is it clean? Is she serious?
“We could potluck, Rach.”
Laurel wasn’t serious, or hadn’t been. But why not insist on this right, too? Rachel—from watching talk shows, she thought—around the time January resolutions would be featured—had decided they were sisters and ought to be better friends.
See more of each other. She had emailed this.
Laurel had emailed back that she was out of work, was drawing her retirement, and volunteering, to keep busy. She was volunteering…
To be seen by neighbors going in and out of her house, verifiably known to have friends. She was building an armor of normality. You needed that, when you were over sixty, and alone.
“I don’t want you buying a turkey, or getting started thinking your dishes aren’t good enough, or you need to get the carpets cleaned, or anything…”
“Too bad. I’d have gone for one of those mail-order hams.”
Rachel missed a beat. Then she laughed.
“No, you should come,” Laurel said.
“Well, okay. You mean Thanksgiving.”
“Bring Alex, if she’s home.”
“She won’t be. Jeff’s Mom could be. Visiting.”
Jeff’s mother had four grandchildren and two greats. The littlest lived with his niece in Las Vegas; but this was “close” to Rachel’s mother-in-law, flying up from Scottsdale. The toddler and the warmer climate received most of her attention—but when she visited east, she visited long. Laurel knew this from Rachel’s stories; outside Jeff, she had never met any of the family.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)