I was merging onto 1-90 West when the radio started crackling. The preset stations had all gone out of range. I drove with one hand and one eye on the empty highway while I searched the side compartment in the driver’s door for some sort of distraction. I found my old Journey’s Greatest Hits CD and Norah’s Patsy Cline cassette. I chose Journey, but months, or years, or a car wreck scratched the disk causing the end of “Any Way you Want It” to skip. I was left with a resounding echo of Steve Perry’s voice telling me “that’s the way you nee- e e e e e,” but was never let in on what it was exactly that I so badly ‘nee- e e e e ded.’ Of all times, it was now that I would have really liked to know. By the fourth time through Journey I didn’t hear the words, but it didn’t matter. Words weren’t very useful anyway.
It wasn’t until I realized my tank of gas was getting dangerously low a little while later that I began to take note of my surroundings. I gathered from license plates and the general lack of infrastructures that I was in was rural South Dakota. There were other exit signs that led to highways going toward Winner or Mission, names for towns I thought were amusing. I said “winner” out loud to myself. “Winner. Winner. Winner. Winner. Winner.” I sounded more robotic the more I said it. I was robotically conversing with other machines. My car would start talking back to me any second, I could just feel it. It would say “Oilllll” just like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz although “Gaaaas” would be more appropriate.
I took the next ramp to Chamberlain, a town whose little blue exit sign promised food and gas. I tanked up the van and paid inside. As I walked back to the van I shoved the receipt into the pocket of my jeans. I climbed back inside the full car and exchanged Journey for Norah’s Patsy Cline cassette. She had told me once a long time ago it reminded her of her mother. Patsy’s twangy voice started up in the middle of a stanza crying, “…weeping willow, crying on his pillow, maybe he’s crying for me-ee…” Listening to Patsy sing made me wonder what would have reminded Elise of her mother. Maybe it would have been the way Norah absent-mindedly twirls her hair while reading the morning paper and drinking her coffee. Or the way she bites her lower lip when clasping her necklaces behind her head. I zone back in to hear Patsy telling me that she’s “crazy, crazy for feeling so lonely…” I wondered how I compared on Patsy’s scale of crazy and lonely: me, a disheveled middle-aged man, in rural South Dakota driving a car with Minnesota plates, wife at home unable to communicate with him, listening to a Patsy Cline cassette, all while he tries to blame himself for the death of his daughter and the rift that has grown between him and his wife since. Crazy and lonely indeed.
Thinking about Norah made her feel even more distant. Back at home what we wanted to say we wrote down in the notebook on the counter. I preferred a fat green washable marker, the kind used by first-graders for coloring grass, dinosaurs, and broccoli. Norah always wrote with a BIC mechanical pencil, which felt like an unfair advantage because I know sometimes she wrote things down and then erased them. But they were too always faint to make out.
At first, speaking was hard. My mouth would stay dry and words wouldn’t come. After a while though, it became permanently impossible. Words spoken in the house that weren’t to or from Elise sounded like hands slapping at stone. We both choked up so we turned to the notebook. The first three weeks we wrote everything: “I’m tired of chicken, let’s grill out,” or “Your mother called and left a message.” She’d write to tell me she’s going to bed and I would write back to tell her I’m staying up to watch the weather. Other times I wrote down statistics I read or I spoke of nothing of any consequence. She always wrote back asking for scholarly sources to prove my points and requesting explanations.
I flip through the pages of our conversations; light pencil marks replying to thick green marker. The contrast of her meticulous, tiny writing to my scrawled blabber gave me the impression everything she said was well constructed and painstakingly thought out with the same attention a kindergarten teacher would take to show her students the difference between a “b” and a “d.” It made me think. I: abstracted, haphazard* dangerous. She: sensible, perfected, safe. Elise: curious, neat, mediator, gone.
If you were a wall, I would try to climb over you. But you’d be infinitely tall and I would be infinitely small and no progress would ever truly be made and nothing would ever change.
But why am I a wall and why are you climbing me?
Why aren’t you crumbling?
Can you stop thinking of me as a wall? Can I just be a human? Can I just be your wife?
You are whoever you want to be.
Stop it, Henry. Please be less cryptic and just tell me what’s bothering you.
Everything bothers me.
Well can you be a little more specific?
I told you. Everything bothers me.
I don’t know why I try.
Sorry to cause you so many problems. I’m glad you’re getting what you want.
What? How is this getting what I want? What do I gain ever?
It just is.
She didn’t respond. I ask, How do you know what you want?
Because it’s never changed.
But everything’s different now.
Nothing’s changed. It doesn’t have to be so hard, Henry.
But it is.
Just try. Please.
HOW CAN I TRY WHEN EVERYTHING ABOUT ME IS COMPLETELY UNORIGINAL?
NOTHING IS NEW.
How is that possibly true? And what does that have to do with things being hard?
It just does. It always will. And it’s not a how. It’s a why.
I lost it all.
All of your originality? I don’t think so, Henry. Where’dyou lose it then?
If I knew that…
Norah didn’t respond and I knew I had made her angry, but fights on paper were always better than fights in person. There was no icy silence or harsh retorts—just words on paper. When she doesn’t respond to the tirade of my mind’s thoughts, our journal just looks like a giant conversation with myself. Some entries of mine feature drawings of hands or questions from the morning crossword.
57 Down: Pop group whose name is coincidentally a rhyme scheme. She doesn’t respond. I write, ABBA.
I went to the cupboard and pulled down a yellow notebook that had the first few pages filled with a 6-year-old’s scribbles and scrawled out alphabets on it. I could tell Norah had looked at this notebook often from where her salty tears had fallen and dried, warping the pages. I flipped to the last page of the notebook. It began with my fat green marker.
I was driving.
I should have warmed up leftovers instead.
I was picking a fight.
I let you get distracted. I left before she could get buckled.
I should have checked.
We both should have checked.
Norah and I only wanted to hear the words that told us it was all our faults and that we were terrible parents. Instead, everyone kept throwing words at us that were supposed to help and heal but they couldn’t do anything. Our words had failed.
Soon after all words became useless, I began to see them everywhere. Words of regret were piled up inside cemeteries. Huge foamy words like “You can do it!” or “Touchdown!” lay ripped and trampled in the high school football stadium after Friday night games. Words of joy sat contentedly by swings and merry-go-rounds in parks. Whispered words were the hardest to see because they were so small, but sometimes while sitting on the train or reading in the library I’d find a “this one?” or a “ready?” laying about. When it rained, all words got wet; but they dried again when the sun shone. As time passed, I saw words freeze in December and thaw in March. They were warm in June and sweaty in August.
I leafed back through the pages to what I figured was a few weeks ago. It was the beginning of the second journal Norah and I had filled. It started with a picture of a spiteful God pouring a scalding cup of coffee onto two stick figures’ heads. The thick green marker outlining the stick figures’ faces framed gasping mouths, green dotted eyes, and backwards “c” noses that cowered in fear as green marker lines splashed onto their heads through an act of God. Beneath that I recorded in the journal:
It doesn ‘tfeel like home anymore.
But this is your home, Henry. I’m here.
You’re not here. I’m not here. Neither of us are being who we are here. We’re not here.
Henry, be more straightforward.
WE’RE NOT ANYWHERE.
My stick men and women occasionally featured a stick daughter who then got scribbled over to become a shrub or tree or giant blob, like Flubber. But that only happened on bad days. One time Norah drew a balloon that had just escaped the grasp of a little stick-girl’s hand, whose face looked shocked and tired. Norah didn’t understand I had made-up rules for the journal. I knew speaking words hurt her like they hurt me, but I don’t think she understood this was the only way I knew to communicate at first. The statistics, questions, and drawings were my words. To her they were mostly just the product of paper and marker.
Groceries: Kleenex, lunchmeat, lettuce, diced stewed tomatoes, milk
If you’d like.
Eventually that became tedious. The first time we talked was because of Norah. We had gone to the grocery store and were unloading the car. I walked in the house with Norah behind me having just shut the trunk door. I held the door for her as she walked into the house with the last load and she said, “thank you, Henry.” I replied, “You’re welcome.” It startled us both I think, but we didn’t look at each other. After that it was little things we said or did for each other that we found as appropriate circumstances in which to talk. “If I make coffee, do you want some?” “Only if it’s decaf.” And, “My oil light is on in the car.” “I’ll take a look.”
I remembered I checked her oil and wiped pure, glassy amber away from the dipstick. I turned on the car and the oil light didn’t come on; it was perfectly fine. I wondered if she just wanted something to say. That reminded me of once when it was October and I was at a stoplight. I saw the child in the van next me fog up the window with his breath and then wipe his fingers through the clouded glass to make the image of a smiling face. I was hit with grief equivalent to the impact of the truck that sped past our driveway and into the side of our car five months ago. I missed Elise. I started crying and didn’t hear the horns honking behind me when the light turned green again. Cars passed me but I had no words to say and no actions to take.
A honking car behind me brought me immediately back to Chamberlain, South Dakota. The left turn arrow to get back on 1-90 West had turned green. Instead of making the light, I made a U-turn and got on 1-90 East. It was time to go home. Home to Norah, my house, my notebooks, the written words, my forgotten spoken words, and my grief. I wanted to write “I’m coming” on a piece of paper, fold it into an airplane, and make it sail out the window all the way to Norah, so she’d catch it and know.