Valley of Ashes, page 1
Table of Contents
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For Frederick Harvey Read and Rick Dage
Requiescat in pace et in amore.
[A]fter a child is born the lives of its mother and father diverge, so that where before they were living in a state of some equality, now they exist in a sort of feudal relation to each other. A day spent at home caring for a child could not be more different from a day spent working in an office. Whatever their relative merits, they are days spent on opposite sides of the world.
—Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother
When we first moved to Boulder, I was entirely too happy—a state of being so rare in my experience that I found it rather terrifying.
My twin daughters, Parrish and India, were beautiful, precocious, and brimming with good health. My husband, Dean, was happily successful at his new job and my best, most trusted friend. We lived at the eastern feet of the Rocky Mountains in a cozy old house on the loveliest street of a charming university town.
The air was fresh, the sky was blue—our yard a lush and maple-shaded green, our mellow brick front porch banked in the early spring with a cobalt-and-amethyst embarrassment of lilac, iris, and grape hyacinth.
Everything I’d ever wanted, not least the fleeting belief that Boulder might heal the halves of me, split since childhood between New York and California.
Sorrow is always your own, offering no temptation to fickle gods. Fucking joy, on the other hand? You might as well string your heart from the ceiling for use as a frat-party piñata.
We’d lived in Colorado for three months now, and somehow everything about my marriage had shifted. Not in a good way.
Dean traveled a great deal for work, and when he was home he no longer liked me very much.
I didn’t know why, exactly, but it was hard for me to blame him: Most days, I didn’t like me a whole hell of a lot, either.
I was exhausted. And lonely. And really shitty at the whole housewife thing. And just so fucking sad, even though I loved my kids and Dean with great fierceness and should’ve been overjoyed with my fabulous luck, right?
It was just… well, I had this constant creeping terror that I didn’t deserve any of the good parts, that I wasn’t holding up my end of the bargain. That fear wafted across the bottom of everything, like dry-ice mist rippling along the floor of some cheesy horror-movie set.
And also I should’ve been eating nothing but salads and taking up jogging or something. Plus washing my hair more often.
But mostly I really, really wanted to be able to sleep for three straight days.
I often found myself thinking of this French kid, Pascal. We’d met one college summer while I was crashing in Eliot House at Harvard with some pals who were actually attending classes there.
Pascal gave himself an odd punky haircut in his dorm room one day with a razor trimmer before wandering around Boston Common for an afternoon, thereby enduring catcalls of derision from every last roving gang of blue-collar youth.
He used to be cool, Pascal said of himself that night in dining hall, but now they call him “Maggot Head.”
Lately, those words had echoed in my brain every time I looked in the mirror.
Snotty Parisian accent and all.
The Flatirons jut up at the western end of Colorado’s high plains. Boulder’s bookend: a crooked row of five-hundred-foot shark’s teeth, tipped vertical eighty million years ago by the cataclysmic upthrusts that had whelped the Rockies.
You really couldn’t miss them, from any vantage point in town.
I’d only ever lived away from the ocean once before, but this time I was determined not to bitch about it.
I pulled my daughters toward Pearl Street in their little red covered wagon, my throat dry in the thin mile-high air.
We were buffeted, as usual, by random clots of joggers, bikers, and Rollerbladers—obsessive jocks with an o’erweening sense of entitlement being as ubiquitous on the sidewalks of Boulder as those pompous blowhard leveraged-buyout guys and their calcium-deprived blond wives had been in the better restaurants of Manhattan.
I’d let my driver’s license lapse while we lived in New York, but hadn’t been in any great hurry to set up a DMV appointment out here to regain one. Joggers aside, Boulder had a terrific pedestrian culture, and we were only a couple of blocks’ walk from nearly everything one could want downtown. Plus it was sunny 330 days a year here, on average, and I figured having to walk instead of ride most of the time wasn’t going to do my ass any aesthetic harm.
Dean and I usually did big grocery runs on the weekend, and me not driving also meant that he had to pitch in on that front.
The only time it sucked was when he was out of town and I needed supplies in a hurry. I was fighting my way toward Pearl Street just then because my husband was at a sales conference in New Orleans and I’d ripped a giant hole in my very last extant vacuum bag while trying to empty it into the kitchen garbage so I could use it over again.
Not that I was addicted to vacuuming or anything, but my mother was due to arrive around lunchtime in the camper she was driving across the country and my house looked like a complete shithole.
Well, okay, my house usually looked like a complete shithole. I just wanted my mother to think I’d made some progress, on that front at least.
Mom Lewis-and-Clarking from sea to shining sea at the wheel of her little beige secondhand Chinook meant that she and my father were both currently members of what Dad had long ago christened “the In-Car Nation.” As far as I knew, this was the first thing they’d had in common since their 1967 divorce.
For her it was a lark. Dad, meanwhile, lived in his VW van. He was probably the only homeless guy in America to have voted for Reagan. Twice.
It was two days before Parrish and India’s first birthday, hence Mom’s imminence, and I also was expecting my bestest pal Ellis to show up with her own two children the following day.
I was kind of hoping the pair of them could help me figure out what the hell had gone wrong with my marriage. Or, better yet, tell me everything was totally fine and I was just being weird and paranoid for no reason at all, and then maybe let me nap a lot.
The Radio Flyer’s metal handle bit into my palm. I peeked under its little white hooped-canvas roof to make sure the girls remained happily engrossed in their respective fistfuls of soggy Cheese Nips. They grinned up at me, laughing, rosy little cheeks bedizened with orange crumbs.
I had dressed them that morning in brightly contrasting turtlenecks, cotton jumpers, and striped tights—with blue jean jackets and miniature biker boots.
“Sweetness and light,” I said, reaching into the wagon to stroke India’s glossy dark hair and Parrish’s skimpy blond fuzz, then soldiered on across Spruce at Sixteenth.
The sky was a saturated Easter-egg turquoise and it was seventy degrees out even though the sidewalks were edged with snow.
Up here, the sunlight packed a wallop you never found at sea level. Everything looked sharper, cleaner, because there wasn’t as much atmosphere to buffer the rays.
I muscled the wagon up an awkwardly angled curb cut, pa
I kind of hated the Camera, since I’d sent them my clips and résumé when we first moved here and got a curt and badly xeroxed form-rejection postcard in reply—not even the simple courtesy of “You suck so profoundly we wouldn’t employ your illiterate lack-talent ass if you were the lone hack to survive a pan-galactic nuclear apocalypse, neener neener,” on actual letterhead.
I reached into the next box and grabbed the Boulder New Times, a free weekly that hadn’t yet ruled me out.
Something to live for.
On the off chance I’d ever find employment with these guys, I’d taken to stockpiling issues in a downstairs broom closet.
Ten feet past the bollards demarcating Pearl Street’s pedestrianized stretch, a brand-new red Saab convertible’s tires squealed slowly against the curb: stoner parking. It still had paper dealer plates on, but there was already a MEAN PEOPLE SUCK sticker affixed to the custom ski rack.
The car’s front doors popped open and two dreadlocked, PataGucci-fleeced white boys tumbled onto the sidewalk in a Lilith Fair billow of clove cigarette and patchouli.
The tall kid began torturing passersby with tuneless moans on a nose flute.
His diminutive Trustafarian friend shoved a limp crocheted rainbow skullcap in my face. “Spare change.”
A demand, not a question.
“Dividend checks late again?” I asked, dragging my wagon in a wide arc around his expensively sneakered feet.
“We’re hungry, man,” said the nose flautist.
Parrish squealed with glee and threw two drool-sodden little orange squares onto the sidewalk.
“Cheese Nips,” I said, pointing down. “Enjoy.”
Yeah, so much for that whole not-being-a-bitch thing.
When the girls had first figured out how to crawl in our Manhattan apartment, Dean built them a giant, beautifully constructed playpen “fence” out of dowels and two-by-fours. Out here we put it up around the dining room table and filled it with toys to keep them occupied so I could occasionally try to get grown-up stuff done, like cleaning the rest of the house before Mom arrived.
It was about eight feet square, a nice space for them to toddle around in, not least since the landlord must have gotten a deal on orange-shag wall-to-wall carpeting so there was a cushy landing whenever they wobbled and fell over.
I changed both their diapers, scrubbed off my hands and forearms, made two quesadillas and chopped up some raw broccoli, strapped the girls into their primary-colored plastic booster seats, filled two sippy cups with milk, and started on the piles of dishes in the sink.
When they were done eating, smearing each other with melted cheese, and shot-putting various bits of lunch around the kitchen, I gently sponged their faces, hosed off their drool-and-cheddar-and-banana-slice-decked bibs, picked chunks of greasy tortilla out of their hair, and set them loose in the playpen so I could start sweeping leftover chunks off the kitchen floor (also a disgusting “antique” shade of orange, to match the shag rug and rancid-rust Formica countertops).
I yearned to win some giant Powerball jackpot just so I could buy the place and rip out every speck of orange in it, then pile it up in the dirt-road alley behind our backyard and set it all on fire.
Because the house itself was beautiful—probably built sometime in the teens. It had high ceilings and tall graceful windows and doorways.
There was a solidity to it, as well. This was a house built by people who wanted to stick around. People who’d headed west, maybe, thinking about California, but got to the foot of the Rockies and said to themselves, “You know, this is really pretty damn great right here. Let’s plant a whole lot of graceful shade trees and lay out some generously Euclidean streets and make a life. We’ll have wide porches and deep backyards, and we’ll plant gardens and talk to our neighbors over the side fence. Take our time with things. Maybe start a university.”
I looked through the door to the dining room to check on the girls. They’d both climbed into an empty Pampers carton and were grinning at each other, convulsed with laughter.
The sun was streaming in through the front windows, and as exhausted as I was, I had a sudden gut-shot of pure joy, watching them play together. I grabbed our video camera and recorded a minute of them giggling in the box.
After putting the camera back on its high shelf, I started hosing down the girls’ booster-chair trays in the kitchen sink, the drain of which then backed up and spilled over onto the floor when the washing machine’s rinse cycle emptied.
By the time I’d mopped that up and joined my children in the dining room, lugging the country-blue vacuum cleaner my mother-in-law gave me for Christmas some years earlier, Parrish had taken another massive dump in her diapers, removed them, crawled smack-dab through the middle of the steaming pile of crap, and left a serpentine fecal Hansel-and-Gretel trail crisscrossing the carpet under and around the table.
I dropped the vacuum and ran to grab the kitchen garbage can, a clean diaper, a box of butt-wipes, a roll of paper towels, and the dish soap, then climbed into the playpen.
By this point, Parrish had liberated a fistful of bowel product from the back of her diaper and mashed it against the table’s edge.
“Dude,” I said, snaking an arm around her chubby little waist to pull her away from the burgeoning shit-mural, “contrary to popular opinion, your butt does not make Play-Doh.”
Parrish laughed up at me and tried to grab my hair with her merde-encrusted fists. I captured her wrists in one hand and started the haz-mat remediation with a thick wad of wipes.
Ten minutes later, I had her swabbed down, re-diapered, re-dressed, and sweetly reeking of Eau de Johnson’s-Baby-Whatever, plus all the crap scraped up, the carpet and table sudsed and lathered and rinsed.
I plopped her back down in the playpen, kissed the top of her downy blond head, said, “Good thing you’re cute, sweetness,” and grabbed the vacuum cleaner.
I plugged the damn thing in and got down on my hands and knees to begin assaulting the rest of the ugly rug fronds.
This posture was necessary because our vacuum had about as much sucking power as a pair of asthmatic elves armed with defective crazy straws, so the only way to make it actually pick up dirt and detritus was to remove all accoutrements from the hose-end before scraping it rapidly back and forth across the orange fronds of shag.
The mind-numbing number of hours I’d devoted to this activity had worn down the hose’s plastic tip to a slanty point, like a giant black lipstick.
My mother-in-law vacuumed her entire house every day. And did all the accounting for the family farm. And was generally cheerful, but witty. Which is kind of tough to measure up to.
Especially since I was now lying stomach-down on the floor with both arms shoved on a blind mission into the murky depths beneath our sofa—having already raked out six desiccated baby carrots, two Popsicle sticks, half a sesame bagel, and our missing copy of Velveteen Rabbit (the pages of which appeared to be cemented shut with a thick mortar of hummus). I was just wondering how long it had actually been since I’d last vacuumed, considering the thick ruff of velveteenish furry stuff growing along the edges of the petrified hummus, when the doorbell rang.
I caught sight of myself in the front-hall mirror as I stood up to answer it. My skin was gray, my dark blond hair was stringy, and there was a spit-lacquered floret of broccoli affixed to the center of my right eyebrow. Also, I was fatter than I’d ever been in my life by about twenty pounds—and I hadn’t exactly started out as a rail.
I had a second of wistfulness for my misspent youth, the years when all I worried about was scraping up a few bucks to go bar-hopping with my pal Ellis, and there were always drunk old guys mumbling about how I looked like Ingrid Bergman.
“Get a load of you now,” I
She used to be cool, but now…
The living room behind me still resembled Bourbon Street at dawn on Ash Wednesday—minus the confetti and vomit, at least.
I took a halfhearted swipe at my verdantly cruciferous eyebrow and reached for the doorknob.
My beautiful dark-haired mother danced in off the porch and threw her arms around me. “Oh, Madeline, it’s so good to see you!”
I hugged back with gusto, burbling my gratitude that she was visiting against the side of her neck.
Mom pulled back half a step from our embrace. “Hold still a sec.”
She plucked something from my hair with her fingertips, then threw whatever it was back over her left shoulder toward the lawn.
“That was a lump of shit, I think,” she said. “Did you just change the girls’ diapers?”
Whereupon I nodded and burst into tears.
Do you miss Dean when he’s away, or do you like having your own space?” asked Mom.
We were on our way to the pediatrician’s office with her at the wheel of Dean’s beat-up Mitsubishi Galant.
“It’s hard sometimes,” I said. “But then it always feels like we have new stuff to talk about when he gets home. We’re happy to see each other, you know?”
She nodded. “I think the hardest thing for me when you kids were little was never feeling like I could finish anything… everything was always interrupted. And then your father would come home from the stock exchange and I was so hungry for what was going on in the world, and I wanted to be told I was doing things right after singing ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’ all day. Just, ‘Goodness, you’ve painted the dining room table—how wonderful!’ But he wouldn’t say anything at all, he’d just read the paper and have a cocktail and grumble through dinner.”
“You guys were so young,” I said. “I mean, babies. No wonder your entire generation got divorced. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to marry the first guy I slept with, just presuming it would all work out.”
CORNELIA READ SERIES:
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