Larose, p.32
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       LaRose, p.32
 

           Louise Erdrich

  EMMALINE PACKED FOR a conference in Grand Forks. She took nothing more than the usual overnight things—a change of clothes, her makeup case, shoes to walk in if she shopped at Columbia Mall. On the drive there, she could have played the tapes that were in the car—but each album or mix reminded her of other times. She played nothing, and didn’t give herself a problem to think through, either, as she often did on these drives. She just steered herself along. The wind out of the northwest was dry and bitter. Off the dunelike billows along the ditches, snow blew and sifted across the road. Emmaline only glanced from time to time at the continually vanishing tails of snow. A driver could be hypnotized by their loveliness.

  When she reached Grand Forks, she drove straight to the University of North Dakota. She gave her presentation, talked to several colleagues. Soon she excused herself to check into her hotel. She’d taken a room in a generic place across the river where no one from the conference was likely to stay. She gave her information, signed the check-in slip, and went up to her room. She took off her jacket, shoes, and stockings. Then she lay down on the bed. Quickly, she got up. But she was weary and eventually she pulled back the covers and lay down again, still dressed. She curled up on her side and dozed until the phone rang. Her hand hovered until the third ring, but she picked it up and gave him the room number.

  She let him in and he closed the door carefully. They stood before each other. He was dressed of course like a normal person. They didn’t speak. After a while she reached out and tugged the arm of his jacket. He took it off. She touched his shirt. He took that off too. Scars webbed his chest and thickened where they disappeared. She waited and he touched her blouse. She undid the little white shell buttons. He pushed the material off her shoulders. She shrugged and it fell. Once that happened, everything was easy and they slipped together like the snow along the way, endlessly rushing across the pitch-black surface of the road.

  CHEAP FAMILY PHOTOGRAPHS were advertised that spring—Saturday morning in the Alco parking lot. Maggie insisted. Peter said it was hokey. They had plenty of photographs. Shelves of framed photographs.

  But none are by a trained photographer, said Maggie.

  Peter pointed to the lines of school photographs.

  All of us, Dad, in one photograph. It will make Mom happy.

  She’s okay, isn’t she?

  Oh come on, Dad!

  Peter hesitated. They hadn’t taken a family photograph since Dusty. Also, he didn’t know if this would be a secret photograph, to keep hidden from Landreaux and Emmaline. Because LaRose would be in the photograph, it would be a symbolic thing. Peter had worked to keep things like this low-key—neither family claiming LaRose overmuch. He was even more careful since Emmaline had temporarily reclaimed LaRose. He said no. But Maggie stared at him in her spooky, smiley, perfect-daughter kind of way.

  Will a family photograph make you happy? Peter asked Nola as she entered the room.

  We should do it! Maggie threw her arms out to spark her mother. Nola sparked.

  Yes! I’d just love a family photograph.

  I need a beer, thought Peter.

  Lately, Maggie had given him several characters to play: Bumbling Dad, even though he was the handiest man he knew. Wet Blanket Dad, even though he just liked to check in on reality once in a while. Careless Dad Who Lost Things, even though he was beginning to understand that somebody else had long been losing stuff. Maybe he really was Emotionally Lost Dad because he understood that Maggie was taking care of Nola all of the time, in ways he could not define. He couldn’t tell, couldn’t remember what she’d been like before, anyway. So maybe he was Absentminded Dad. And Spaced-Out Dad because he liked to avoid these questions. He was Best Boy Buddy Dad, although LaRose was clearly the character mainly playing Nola’s son. She doted on him. Her eyes followed the fork he ate with. His back when he left the room.

  In the case of this picture, however, to make everybody happy, all he had to do was wear his best shirt and smile.

  Or maybe a suit, said Maggie. Do you have a suit? We are all dressing up, Dad. You need a suit. You need a tie.

  Peter found his wedding suit and tie.

  Nola came out in a purple dress with a silver buckle at the waist. Maggie lowered her head and stared at her mother. Charged ions moved. Nola turned around and went back into their bedroom. What just happened? Peter wondered. He would never see that plum-colored dress again. Nola was now wearing a tan suit, white shirt, black heels. She looked like a flight attendant or a presidential candidate.

  You get my vote, he said.

  Mom, that outfit begs for those twinkly green earrings, said Maggie. And a scarf! Nola returned to the bedroom.

  LaRose did not have a suit, but he did have a dress shirt. Maggie slicked his hair back with water. Nola said he looked like the exceptional boy he was. Everybody beamed. Maggie had on a matching sweater and shell, hot pink, and a short, sassy, eggshell-colored faux leather skirt. She was wearing a white headband and white plastic go-go style but nineties boots that had belonged to her mother. Peter found it disorienting when Maggie wore clothes that he remembered Nola wearing during college, in those years when he took keen notice of her clothing and her in it.

  I’m a lucky man, he said, looking them all over and meaning that sincerely.

  Nola and Maggie gazed at him indulgently. In their script they often didn’t understand what he was saying but rolled their eyes away from him with the gentle exasperation of two mothers.

  With just the right amount of oxy, Romeo looked at things as a movie drama where revenge was justice, saw himself outside of himself, even heard the music, furtive or swelling. And see? Peter was all dressed up in heroic clothing to act his part in a heroic portrait, thought Romeo. But a startling message approached.

  Romeo made his way toward Peter Ravich, whom he’d spotted in the Alco parking lot. To keep walking, he had to keep arguing with Landreaux in his head. Still, still! Landreaux had never talked to Romeo about the old times, and was too high and mighty to give Romeo a sign he even cared one shit about the sacrifice that Romeo made, trying to save Landreaux, even to this day. Plus he was stealing Hollis and Emmaline and all that Romeo should have. Getting away with stealing these because they all believed in a false Landreaux, a saved and sober Landreaux, a Landreaux who could do the worst thing possible and still be loved. That Landreaux must fall.

  I tried to warn him, tried and tried again.

  Now Romeo stood before Peter Ravich.

  Can I talk to you?

  Peter vaguely remembers Romeo, but doesn’t know from where. Romeo himself does not recall that he once approached Peter while the man was pumping gas into his vehicle, and scammed him as he frowned at the whirring readout of numbers. He told Peter that he had lost his wallet and needed ten dollars’ worth of gas to bring his grandmother to the hospital. Peter had unfolded his lean wallet and given him five. Now, stooping and shadowy, Romeo cuts Peter away from his family.

  This is private, he says.

  Romeo’s skinny tail of hair is neatly braided, by himself, braided wet from a shower obtained by stealth from the casino campgrounds. He has broken into his supply of swag and wears a T-shirt stiff with newness, featuring a huge plastic press-on eagle, comrade to an Indian-headbanded turtle, both bursting fiercely through a dream catcher. A red bandanna is tied crisp around his throat, the indigo skulls peeping discreetly over the folded cloth. Romeo has clipped sharp the drooping wisps of his wisdom ’stache. His jeans are slung low, barely on his hips. He speaks calmly, though clearing his throat every other word.

  Apologies, he says, this will only take a minute.

  I’m supposed to be over there, says Peter.

  I’m a friend of Landreaux’s.

  Oh?

  Well, not a friend, as you will see, but a former friend before I found out what Landreaux was up to.

  Romeo pauses; he is proud of that as you will see, which Mrs. Peace once called foreshadowing. He makes a pious sorry-face, like he’
s sad to give the news of Landreaux’s hidden character to one who believes in him.

  In fact, feeling inspired, Romeo uses that line.

  I know you believe in him.

  I . . . yeah, sure . . . what’s going on? Peter glances at his family and smiles uncertainly, waves at their impatient faces.

  You see, I am a hospital worker, says Romeo in a formal way. For that reason, I accidentally hear how things really go down from time to time in real life.

  Peter feels the pull of where this is going and tries to extricate. But Romeo is an assured narrator and already has him with the suckage of story. Romeo puts his hand to his heart.

  I apologize if this causes you to revisit trauma, says Romeo, but you weren’t told the truth. And I just feel—me being me—that you, as a parent, deserve the truth.

  Now everything is very slow or even paralyzed, like time has quit its business and there is only Romeo, and only Peter, and dread like a gong in Peter’s head.

  So that day three years ago, says Romeo.

  Cut the shit.

  Peter’s shoulders hunch and square, his chest expands, his neck swells, his heavy hands itch to grab that red bandanna and twist to choke the words off. This guy is slime. This guy is doing violence here. At the same time, this is something Peter can’t help coming to know. It will be there whether he hears it now or walks away. It will exist behind the sorry-to-tell-you mini-frown with the smugness boiling up behind Romeo’s unctuous manner.

  It’s not shit, says Romeo, calm. He expected this resistance from Peter, so he goes in more slowly. Poor Landreaux. Romeo sighs. Sometimes he tries to self-medicate, you know? Looks like he tried to that day. I heard the guys who were on the ambulance crew that day. I obtained access to the coroner’s report.

  Coroner?

  Yes, nobody told you? Nobody gave you that report? You were perhaps unaware?

  Peter’s legs go weak. No. Maybe it was filed away or burned. It had not occurred to him. The unthinkable had been, at least, straightforward. Peter had seen the tree where it happened. It had all made unbearable sense. He hadn’t wanted to know any details. He’d had his hands full, back then, with Nola spinning off in space and Maggie clutching him like she was drowning. Then fighting him off. Then clutching him. There was no sense in looking at the paperwork of death. It would not have brought his son back. Reports were the cold logistics of death and he’d been dealing with the hot truth of grief.

  So, no.

  I do have it here, said Romeo in a hushed voice, then repeating the TV phrase. I was able to obtain the file. I can tell you what it says, basically. Romeo’s voice is dry and competent. He marvels at how intelligent he makes himself sound—his brain though wormholed is a smart brain, after all.

  It says that Landreaux’s shot missed Dusty’s head, heart, lungs, liver, aortic artery, femoral artery, and stomach. It says that Dusty was not killed by the shot but by the tearing shrapnel of the branch he was sitting on. Shallow wounds, sir. He bled to death while Landreaux was restraining your wife in the house. It doesn’t say this in the report, but the guys speculate Landreaux’s judgment—tragically!—impaired. If Landreaux had not run or panicked, but stopped to treat the boy’s bleeding, which as a personal care assistant he certainly knew how to do, he would probably have saved Dusty’s life.

  And . . . here Romeo embroiders for further effect . . . and, if your wife had been allowed to run back there, even she might have saved the boy.

  Peter feels the paper in his hands. He opens the thing, filled out in squirrelly handwriting. His brain will not read the phrases in sequence, though the words Romeo just used pop out here and there. The paper falls. Romeo picks it up and tries gingerly to press it back into Peter’s hand, but there is no response, so he steps back. Peter’s arm is long and now is the time Romeo might get slugged.

  As Peter stares through Romeo his face goes fragile. Peter’s skin crinkles and lines form, flushed brown as old parchment, and he is suddenly very, very old. Romeo takes another step back from this amazing special effect. Then Peter’s daughter calls.

  Daddy! It’s our turn.

  Peter closes his mouth. His eyes focus. He walks past Romeo and goes to stand before the photographer.

  At the end of his driveway, Peter. Motionless, balanced, hands dangling at his sides. He does not wave at or even see the few cars that pass, the ones that are not Landreaux. Behind him, the pickup, his hunting rifle in the gun rack across the back window. He’s wearing blue jeans, a shirt, his old red and black checked jacket. Head buzzing. Hollow roar of blood in his ears. Had he remembered to relock the gun case? He’d grabbed the gun so quickly. Yes he had, yes. He asks himself this question every three minutes. Part of him already knew what Romeo would say and had been waiting for this. It didn’t feel like news. It felt like corroboration. Every noise is magnified. The dog shuffling in the undergrowth. He watches the birch and popple trees. The leaves shiver with light. He cannot remember his son’s voice. He cannot call a happy image to his mind that is not a photograph. But he can see his son in the leaves, and where before Dusty was at peace, gone instantly in one shock, now his eyes are open, he is calling. He is afraid. Peter bangs the side of his head, trying for another image. The good times. Not a photograph. The real times. Why had he not memorized the moments?

  This moment, anyway, he has stone cold.

  He lifts his arm, waves Landreaux down. Does not move. It is apparent to Landreaux that Peter has something to say so he pulls over and gets out, worried.

  What is it?

  Peter turns, opens the passenger-side door of the pickup.

  Get in, he says.

  Landreaux does.

  Peter slides into the driver’s side, starts the vehicle, pulls out.

  Where are we going?

  Hunting.

  It isn’t hunting season, says Landreaux.

  Yes it is, says Peter.

  On their way to federal land, Peter tells Landreaux all that Romeo told him in the Alco parking lot. Landreaux does not argue with the narrative because in the sudden crush of images, he doesn’t know, can’t remember. Was he high that day? No. He doesn’t think so. No. He knows he wasn’t. No. But does that even matter? He is guilty whichever way. He took the shot. And if he could have saved the boy . . . Landreaux puts his splayed fingers on his face, as if to push pieces of himself back together. They drive in silence. Peter’s skin is gray as rock. But his hands are loose and warm on the steering wheel. Forty minutes pass in seconds.

  The pickup lurches down an old logging road and comes out on a ridge, an opening in dense second-growth woods. Together, many years ago, they had hunted in this place. There was an old clear-cut full of browse, and one time Landreaux had perched in a tree stand on the southern end, waiting, as Peter beat down toward him from the north. They had taken a fine buck.

  Now they get out of the truck and Peter reaches back in for the rifle.

  I’ll find that stand down there, says Peter, gesturing toward the southern limit. He nods to the north, calmly meeting Landreaux’s eyes. You walk down from that hill toward me. I’ll be waiting.

  Landreaux turns toward the hill. A giddy ease steals into him. That all of this will soon be over. Peter is a good shot. It will be like vanishing. No more hiding his miserable truth. No struggle with the substance or not the substance. No waiting for Emmaline to love him again. Although the kids . . . set them free? He doesn’t think he can exist, anyway, seeing forever what he now sees and knows about that day. His thoughts loop. Yes. Peter’s got sights on his rifle. Landreaux won’t even hear the shot. To die will be nothing. It seems like a favor, almost. Landreaux takes his time. He sleepwalks peacefully up the hill. When he gets halfway up, he tells himself to turn and walk down. It is here that he has some trouble.

  The unwelcome desire to live nearly thwarts Landreaux as he gazes down into the woods where Peter is waiting. He sees the birch, the crisp film of new green. The trees quiver with light. His grandfather had tapped birch
trees in spring, and they drank the cold sap, which tasted of life. The bark, the inner layer; he had eaten it when he was hungry and his parents were out drinking. Close by, he sees that dark stands of bur oak could hide him. Peter’s shot would never penetrate that wood. The frogs start singing again down that hill—telling him to run. But he does not run. Blood drains from his heart. His arms and legs go transparent. He glances down to see if he is shot yet. He is both keenly downcast and relieved to see there is no blood. Thoughts tell Landreaux he can still get away. He is out of range. He can run. Why, then, does he drop his head forward and walk back down the hill?

  He is stubborn, and he is angry, and he will not give Peter the satisfaction. With a composure that surprises him, Landreaux orders his shaking legs to move, and they do move. As long as he points his head down the hill, it turns out that the rest of him will follow. He keeps his eyes on the ground. Shy trillium and garlic mustard, swamp tea, snowberry, wintergreen, wild strawberries. Landreaux stoops, picks a few of the berries, puts them in his mouth. The taste is so intense that he nearly drops, right there, to crawl into the downed trees, rough brush. But he doesn’t. Step after step. Fear fizzes in his blood. He mutters, Kill me, you fuck, kill me now—trying to keep the anger. He tries a death song like old people talk about, but his throat shuts. Kill me, you fuck, kill me now, take the shot, take the shot, take it now. But one step follows another. Sometimes he stumbles, but he picks himself up and keeps going.

  WHEN ROMEO LEAVES the Alco parking lot, he wanders, now empty of purpose. All of his being was concentrated on this one attainment.

  It is finished, he says.

  He has triggered events over which he now has no control.

  My work here is done.

  Who to visit, what to do? Nothing appeals. And now that the adrenaline is spent, this is a low day, all energy in the air sucked away in spite of sunshine. Romeo should sleep before his shift. He only got a couple hours last night. But he can resort to several chemical enhancements to keep moving. He doesn’t feel like sleeping right now. These are hours of destiny. If he could only talk to another person! But as usual, nobody wants a visit from Romeo. His treasured captain’s chair sits empty in his gracious home—he could go there. He could arrange the window blankets, put the light on, read the tribal news or some of the literature he’s picked from the hospital trash. People toss perfectly good books away. In theory. When he opens them they’re always crap.

 
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