At long last, on a cold golden October afternoon, Karen Fox came home. The tires of her pickup crackled down the long gravel drive, around the bend, and there it stood: the big old two-story house, her childhood world.
A broody brutish old house, Karen thought, with its thick-pillared porch, deep eaves, and gabled windows that resembled hooded eyes. Crouched like a gate-keeping troll, it dared her to enter the orchard beyond it, dared her to open its door and step into the first sixteen years of her life.
Karen killed the engine and propelled herself out of the cab. She faced the house which she could enter for the first time in nineteen years, but it was no use. After all her furious rush to get here, on freeways, highways, county roads, speeding from sun-up to high noon, it all came to this. She could not climb those porch steps, could not open and walk through that heavy black door.
It stunned her, the power this house still had over her. She felt like her face had been slapped and the breath punched out of her, to stand so helpless against her fear and grief. Dazed, she looked around her and saw the plum trees in their ranks.
She would look at the orchard. It was hers now and she could at least do that. Turning away from the house, Karen walked past the packing sheds and up along the first of the picking lanes. She went up to where a rank of oaks screened the orchard from the county highway.
Here it was, the vantage she had liked as a kid. You could see acres of plum trees descending in gentle undulations. When she was ten or so she would perch here and gloat over the green wealth of her universe, the braided leaves, all gemmed with purple fruit.
She drew a half pint from the back pocket of her jeans and took a pull. As she drank, her forearm showed the etched muscle fifteen years of swinging a framing hammer had put there; her posture showed strong shoulders in her loose Pendleton and breasts large for her leanness. The sun, just declining, picked out the first wisps of gray in her loosely ponytailed blond hair.
She licked whiskey from her lips and addressed the trees. "This is a goddamned shabby turn-out, men! Look at you! Like a bunch of savages! Degenerates!"
After Mom's death, three years ago, Dad had not pruned nor picked them. The trees were spiderish in the gold light, crooked and hairy with untrimmed shoots and suckers, the lanes between them full of weeds and fruit-rot and clouds of flies. The scent of the decay touched her nostrils and, somehow, it filled her with memories of fear. Would she never understand Dad's crime against her? Would she never be free?
Groping for a gesture of defiance, she thought of a game she and Susan liked to play. They would sit around drinking wine and talking to one another like characters in a romance novel. Draining her half-pint with a flourish, she flung it out into the orchard.
"Now, at long last," she declaimed to the trees, "the comely Karinna Foxxe was the mistress of all she surveyed! She stood alone on the crag, a bit long in the tooth, perhaps, but with her willowy limbs and her swelling bodice, still a striking figure of Womanhood. But as Karinna gazed upon her new domain, ample though it was, she felt there was something lacking, something hauntingly absent from her grand estate! For where, oh where, was He? He who had so benevolently ruled this Fairy Kingdom of delight? Where, oh where, was Dear Dead Dad?"
Shouting this, her voice broke and she wiped away unexpected tears. "How she and Dad had haunted these verdant acres together, these nooks and bowers! But now, though she harkens, Karinna hears no sound of Him!" More tears came, so hot and sudden. "Oh, my plummy troops! Oh, my poor bedraggled army! Dear Dead Dad, your general, is no more! It seems he blew his fucking head off!"
It hit Karen then for the first time: though she had shunned Dad for twenty years, she had all along hoped to hear his voice just one more time. To hear him grieve for what he had done.
The breeze shifted, wrapping her Pendleton around her like a shroud. She looked skywards and saw a magnificent red-tail hawk--a female by her great size--crucified against the flawless blue. Karen's mind was lifted to the raptor's viewpoint and she remembered what a wide green world surrounded her, all the hills and groves and silver streams of Gravenstein County. Outside this place, outside these acres which still held her heart staked to the earth, there was a another world. One filled with peace and joy. There was a whole life to be lived, if she could just be free.
Back along the oaks she walked. There was the house and Karen tried to imagine she had been able to go inside it after all, imagine she was in there right now, in Mom's kitchen, maybe, where all the warmth her childhood held could still be found. Looking out the windows into the back yard, where Dad's private fruit trees stood, the ones for his brandy. But no, not till she knew through her own eyes that Dad was truly and unarguably dead.
So back she drove through hours of sun-washed terrain, seeing again the bright red barns and white-railed fences she'd passed coming out. Bales of hay studded just-mown fields, each bale casting the same parallelogram of shadow. Green slopes were dappled with harlequin herds of black and white cows.
But when night came and the towns became sparse islands of light in the long darkness, she stopped for another bottle of bourbon and drove drinking it. Pretty soon she felt simplified enough by the booze that she could pull off to a thinly-neoned country motel, crawl into a bed, set the TV screen flickering with murky shapes to keep her company in the dark, and deeply, simply sleep.