When we camped twelve years ago at Rosie’s park, the RVs took most of the sites, leaving for tents only some rough grass by the river. We four slept under canvas and woke to the sounds of moving water, of poplars trembling. Early in the morning a silent covey of quail crossed that green, slipping through a hedge to the meadow beyond. The plumed mother hustled her chicks along, speckled puffs.
Josh and Meghan still remembered those quail. Even at nineteen and twenty-three they’d imitate, giggling, the tiny scurry. They’d loved Rosie’s raucous laugh, too, and her yard crowded with whirligigs—but this time our kids weren’t with us.
When we parked by the hut marked Office, no Rosie. No one at all. Door locked, though the felt board outside stated Hours 9-7. Some letters had shifted: Sani ary dump fee, No oise after 10 p. Rosie’s plump figure, trotting about her property in capris and floral tee, didn’t appear calling out, “Havin’ a good time, folks?”
Few cars. No other tents, so we’d have the greensward to ourselves. Most of the RVs now housed not roamers but retirees. Bird-feeders and solid furniture stood under the metal awnings, near planters full of daisies, alyssum. Curtains were drawn.
A brindle dog, sole occupant of one gravelled site, slept in a cage beside a cook-stand with a portable barbecue atop, padlocked.
“Where is everyone?”
“Nap-time?” My husband guessed.
The river ran fast.
“Isn’t it higher than before?”
“There’ll be mosquitoes maybe,” he said. “After supper let’s walk to the village. Remember that store? The bridge?”
“You want candy.”
He smiled. “You like antiques.”
The brindle dog rose clumsily off his haunches, nosed at the chain-link.
“A bad limp, friend.” My husband fondled the soft ears.
I did too. “Was he here, before?”
We brought the car close to the river, got our chairs and books and iced tea, found poplar shade.
Dozing, I breathed menthol.
A nasal voice said, “Rosie’s gone away.”
I opened my eyes to a thin old child. No, a woman. Lines scored her face.
Cigarette in hand. Worn cut-offs. Flip-flops. A shabby tank. Grey roots, split blonde ends. Bandages round bony ankles, one strapped with a small black oblong.
“Tents, fifteen. Just the one night? Got cash?”
Exhaling, she folded the bills in with her Cameos. Pointed out stand-pipe, washrooms, trash cans, the high river.
“Rosie’s all upset about mosquitoes. She’s got me foggin, foggin, yesterday, s’morning, tomorrow. Takes me hours.”
If we hadn’t that day driven three hundred miles in our steel box, if we hadn’t sat down to read, chosen our tent-site, we’d have decamped to another brief home. Instead my husband changed the subject, his strategy for avoiding difficult moments.
“Sorry not to see Rosie. We stayed here years ago, with our kids, and she was a lot of fun.”
“Oh she can be that, mother-in-law.” Pause. “But she’s away. S’all up to me. Trash, the damn residents, the town goin on about back taxes. And he don’t do much.”
My strategy is to ask questions, but Dearie left before I could choose one.
We set up tent and stove, fetched water.
“Dearie, how old?”
He made a Dunno face. “Forty maybe.”
“That skin, the awful hair! Fifty at least.”
We zipped the sleeping-bags together, then ate our meal, with river and trees as dinner music.
Before our walk, we locked the car.
In the women’s room, a sign by each lethargic toilet read Hold lever down ’til clear. Think of others! Rosie’s curly script appeared again by the tampon machine’s broken coin slot, Ladie’s Supplies at Desk. The shower-curtain crackled with scum. I sighed. The night before we’d camped at a forestry site, the sole amenity a pit toilet.
En route to the village’s tiny business area, we walked by peach trees, plums, apples, their branches loaded with June’s hard green. Morning glory, wild rose wreathed the hedges. Kids and dogs ran everywhere.
The store’s bell jangled us in.
Still that pyramid of junk-food—years ago, how our children gasped!
No shoppers, no one at the cash register. We browsed the aisles of furniture, mirrors, indeterminate objects treasured once, resented now. Last time we’d happily bought an old citrus-juicer, heavy green glass.
“Wouldn’t Josh love this oak desk?”
“Maybe too big for the car?”
“I was just imagining him. Sitting there.”
He sighed. “I imagine nice things too.”
Seeing no price tag, we moved on to treats, and a tired woman emerged from the back as we neared the till.
“That oak desk?”
“Wow,” he said.
“Yeah. I keep telling the owner he over-prices, and then he complains stuff don’t sell. You at Rosie’s?” She rang up our purchases. “That fog floats uphill. Stinks. We gotta close our windows. She won’t listen. Well. What can you do.” On do, her voice sank.
The door jingled us out, and we found the little bridge.
No cars, bikes, pedestrians. Again we admired the line of hills, far beyond the river’s glitter that vanished round a curve. Poplars and willows dipped into the blue brown green, while half-submerged bushes waved as if struggling to get out. We leaned on the rail, eating sweet. Dragon-flies and water-boatmen sparkled.
Standing close, I wanted to touch him. We hadn’t, in months.
Swallows darted dipped swerved.
Instead I asked him if he thought Dearie’s tracker had scraped her ankles, admitting infection? Or— just sensitive skin? Why house arrest? Why not wear a concealing runner-and-sock combo? To offer the world a general Fuck you?
When we’d gutted these topics I stupidly asked aloud what I’d so often asked myself, on this our first escape in a year.
“What do you think we’ll find at home?”
He took my hand. “I keep remembering this morning. Those kids. The boy.”
At a café in a coastal town we’d stopped for coffee. Newspapers, boardgames lay on a shelf. Nearby, a boy and a younger girl drank smoothies and played chess, watched by a big brother? A cousin? He had golden curls.
My big-city paper featured, in Living Today, photos of a rose-show just opening. Such colours! Perhaps we could. . . .
My husband said, “Oh no.”
He’d chosen the town’s tabloid. Page One: a boy’s grad photo topped 18-Year-Old Drowns/Dad Saved/ Near Harbour.
I read the standard tale: change in weather, huge wave, boat overturned, life-jackets MIA, yada yada.
“How could they be so stupid?”
He looked puzzled. “It isn’t that simple.”
“Not if you’ve lived by water all your life.”
“What excuse is that?”
In the capsize, the fisherman dad broke his arm. Neither he nor the boy’s best pal, along for the celebratory trip, could find him sunk where tidal waters slammed up against fresh. The friend hauled the father to land.
The young girl held a pawn, thinking.
I finished reading about roses. “You don’t want to discuss this, do you?”
He hesitated. “Sometimes I wonder what people say about us, Josh’s parents.”
“What do they know?”
“Well.” He spooned up sweet foam. “I’m not a hundred percent sure we’ve always done the right things.”
“Didn’t we get him into treatment? Isn’t it up to him now?”
“As I said before.” He saw the roses I’d been looking at, smiled. “You’d like to see that show?”
The chess-watcher’s curls shook with sudden laughter. He clapped. The girl blushed. The boy pouted, then applauded. Off they all went, into their bright day.
I visited the shining women’s room.
Back in the car, he said, “Next stop, Rosie’s!”
His cheerful turn to drive. Just as well. Make-up’s a flimsy shield.
As we walked from the bridge towards the RV park, I remembered that the kids and I had met a cat. Kittens too. I slowed.
He went on, and I wandered alone past yards brimful of the syrupy summer light. Everywhere Josh and Meghan giggled, pointed, exclaimed. Seven, eleven.
“Mum, can’t we take the little calico home?”
“She’s too young, dear.” Tears strove to exit.
At the park, a big pick-up was pulling in. The driver and I nodded as the brindle dog struggled up, barking delight.
My husband stood near a utility shed, by a man wearing a straw hat with a black band. Suddenly this man bent over a trash-bag, bent as if he’d collapse without that bulk. Two, three seconds.
Not touching my husband’s proffered hand, he straightened. Saw me. Tipped his gondolier’s hat. Bald. And turned away.
My husband, quietly, “Just helping Warren with the trash.”
We headed for our tent-home, but as we passed the truck-driver’s site he opened the dog’s cage. Nothing for it but to stop. Greet. Chat. Pat.
The brindle sniffed me, wagged.
“Old boy?” asked my husband.
Ralph nodded. “Had him nine years. Found him side of the highway, left to die. Figured him then for five, six.”
He threw a red ball.
The men spoke of the tools and machinery in the pick-up’s box, of local farming practices. I drifted towards our site. The limping dog ran, retrieved, ran.
At last Ralph lit his barbecue, and my husband rejoined me.
“How could you talk so long? Who’s the hat-guy?”
He fetched a map from our car, then sat down by me, hard. “That boy? In the paper? Who drowned? Rosie’s at his funeral.”
Oh awful, awful as could be.
An only child. Rosie’s sole grand-child.
Gondolier Warren, Rosie’s other son: uncle to the dead. Dearie’s husband. So he couldn’t go because of her, I almost said, and almost Good they don’t have kids.
“Why didn’t the cashier tell us?”
Surprised, “We’re strangers.”
Unfolding the map, he pointed at a blue wriggle. “That café? This same river. The boy spent summers here. Threw that ball. That’s why no one’s around.”
He wiped his eyes.
Side by side, quiet, we imagined how, after such an event, no one can, at first, bear to tell those who must know. We twitched, frantic to hear Josh speak and to ask Meghan about her brother, but we’d all three sworn to phone only in emergency.
Which, he and I agreed, this wasn’t. Already in that coastal town the mourning flowers coloured the grave, or had been given away, thrown out.
From the barbecue rose the smell of wieners.
The dog slowed.
“Ralph sleeps in his truck?”
He nodded. “Does day-labour on farms round here. Repairs, servicing.”
The quiet dusk came on.
My husband got wine from the cooler, twisted off the cap. ”Probably those two made a fine couple once. Pretty little blonde, tall dark etcetera.”
Bewildered. “You mean Dearie?”
“You didn’t see Warren close up. Handsome, once.” He poured. “Rosie’s lost her marbles. He’s trying to run the place.” He sipped. “Any kittens?”
The campfire we’d planned felt too public, happy. Instead, while darkness thickened we drank and ate and offered silent witness as the birds concluded their testimony. Stars appeared, bats flickered by. No mosquitoes.
Crawling into our tent, I inhaled stale menthol.
Our pillows and books lay differently. We searched. The tent-pocket where he’d stashed his All-Sorts—empty.
He smiled. “You don’t like that liquorice smell anyway.”
True. Not the point, but after twenty-seven years we sometimes recognize what’s not worth discussing.
Into bed. Quiet. No reading. Air moved through our flimsy home into the quivering poplars. Invisible, the river rushed to tide-water. I did not ask if my husband thought Dearie was sucking his candy. If she and Warren shared a bed. If she changed her dressings, slipped a lacy night-gown over her bones, took her tracker off.
Stupid me. We should have bought that desk. Too late. We should never have left home. My fault. Warren hairless, the dog old, like failing Rosie, like us. What can you do? I counted his soothing breaths.
At dawn, amid wild bird-song I woke and went out to pee. The dog’s tail twitched.
Wieners hissed on the barbecue as Ralph’s long day began.
A flutter in the grass.
I stood still.
My husband was awake too, peering from our tent as the tiny speckled puffs floated through the hedge. When the mother quail’s plume vanished, I got back into our sleeping-bag and we grabbed each other, sour mouths, unwashed bodies, bristle-chin, the works.
Then we left the sorrowful park, aiming for the house that as far as we knew still held our darlings.