Their father was a photographer who took pictures of Cuba, mostly cars. Blue Chevrolets against backdrops of scarred yet colorfully painted apartment buildings. TIME magazine published several of them in the early eighties and the paycheck was substantial enough to afford his getaway. He left them in the middle of the night. Sarah and her younger sister watched from the upstairs window as he scraped ice off of the car windshield. His breath caught in the wind and grabbed at them with icy fingers. Sarah shivered in her pajamas.
He looked up once but didn’t wave goodbye. They watched the white exhaust from the tailpipe rise like smoke signals until it disappeared, then climbed back under the warm covers. But they didn’t sleep. For the next seven days, their mother refused to take her medication. On the eighth, she set fire to the garage; which, thank goodness, wasn’t attached to the main house where the girls waited in their bed, still as corpses, little fingers intertwined, while the flames devoured a path to their father’s empty parking space.
* * *
At the North Hollywood Library book sale, Sarah found the perfect gift for her father’s seventieth birthday. Buena Vista, Colorado Memories, had been written and self-published in 1973 by Doug McGee. The cover bore a faded red and white border with a stark sketch of a horse and rider traveling under a big sky. When she picked up the book, a piece of paper fluttered to the library floor:
Tuesday, November 6, 1973
Please give this book to Mrs. Worlman.
Thanks a bunch!
The note was written on a piece of paper torn from an old day calendar – the kind of day calendar that secretaries used to keep on their desks before the computer age, each date stamped on a piece of paper with two perforated holes attached to a metal ring.
Buena Vista, Colorado Memories was the story of the McGee pioneers who’d settled in the Buena Vista mountains. Sarah liked history. History distilled experience in a way that people could digest. History appreciated that life was hard, mean and bitter, and that people suffered. The story of their sufferings left readers nostalgic for better, simpler times – when forging snowdrifts for meat was the only worry, not internet child pornography or global warming. Sarah skimmed the book’s yellowed pages, peering at the dusky family portraits until she found her favorite. Seated in a cane-backed chair, a small woman with thin lips, primly dressed in a high lace collar, clutched a curly-haired baby boy wearing a baptismal gown. Behind her stood a somber older husband, uncomfortable in a stiff suit, resting his large hand on her already-burdened shoulder. Their stoic expressions and well-oiled hair somehow made Sarah’s present life seem more bearable.
On the back cover of the book was a photograph of the author Doug McGee, around fifty years old. He wore a thick, dark mustache and had rosy cheeks, the kind of cheeks that men in the West sported from rough dry winds and too much whiskey. The blurb under the photo said that Doug McGee lived in Orange, California, and worked in the sheriff’s department. Sarah wondered if Doug McGee was still alive, thirty years later. The book cost a dollar, which probably wouldn’t save the library, but Sarah bought it anyway because the wide open sky was a place she’d always promised to visit some time. She hoped her father would appreciate the birthday gesture, but he probably wouldn’t.
Passing through San Francisco once, her father had glimpsed an immigrant Chinese woman through a laundromat window. Her image drove him to take her picture -and subsequently, a whole series of pictures of her family, including ancient wrinkled grandparents and a dozen round-cheeked children. The Chinese Laundromat Series took him a year to finish. It was published in a book of international photography and won an international humanitarian award. This was shortly after the divorce because Sarah and her sister received an autographed copy of the book in the mail. The sisters poured over the photographs, searching for clues to their father’s whereabouts, secretly hoping an immigrant family would bring him home. Shortly after that, their mother sent them to visit their grandparents in France.
Sarah would not let herself think of her father, and so images of him crept into her dreams. The shadow of a wide back, thin long legs apart in a firm stance, the Nikon 35mm with its long black strap swooped around his broad neck, and the lens trained on a beauty only he could witness. When she dreamt of her father, he was very tall and a far distance away – capturing other people’s families.
* * *
Buena Vista, Doug McGee wrote, was named for its panoramic view of the Rocky Mountains which loomed in the near distance, their heavy shoulders laden with fresh snow. It had been a beautiful, sorrowful place for his ancestors to ranch and farm. Certain years, the wide meadows of rocky soil yielded bounty, while others, not even a single misshapen potato. If the wolves didn’t get the calves, the cougars did, as well as several of the children. The deceased children’s sepia photographs lined several pages. Life was hard – established page one. Sarah loved the aura of authenticity the faded black and white stamp on the inside front jacket cover lent: Property of the Buena Vista Public Library.
Sarah’s house was filled with photographs of luminous and interesting faces, decayed once-grand buildings, faraway sun-swept and littered beaches. The walls were better hung than a SoHo gallery: a shopkeeper in a storefront window, a solitary cat on a wall in Spain, a little boy with one shoe in Puerto Rico. Each crated work of art had arrived out of the blue, well-framed, without a note or card. Only the return address on the FedEx label let Sarah know in which country her father had taken up residence. Her sister also received photographs but she immediately sold them. Their father was not quite famous.
“It’s not like he ever loved us,” her sister said when she offered to sell Sarah’s photographs. But Sarah had refused.
Tuesday, November 6, 1973
Please deliver this book to Mrs. Worlman.
Thanks a bunch!.
The McGee’s occupied Sarah’s mind-numbing days at the office supply magazine where her boss yelled into the phone in his office and rarely asked for anything; or when he did, he claimed he hadn’t, or worse, that she’d done it all wrong. Sarah spent hours at her desk doing internet research on Buena Vista until she stumbled upon the last living McGee.
Amy McGee lived in Carpinteria, California, and was a divorced high school biology teacher. Over the phone, she told Sarah that her father Doug had drank too much and been pretty mean, but she had forgiven him long ago. He’d witnessed the first few years of WWII, the most devastating war in human history, and had mostly ignored his family. But on his fiftieth birthday, he churned out a book filled with wit and charm and something they’d never witnessed – sentimentality. Amy had a copy also. In a box somewhere on a shelf.
“I was born in California,” she told Sarah. “We never even visited Buena Vista.”
Amy remembered Bibby, a ranch hand with a red, craggy face and crooked smile. Also, a big drinker. He was a friend of Doug’s from high school. He came out to California to visit once.
“Dad probably gave him your book,” Amy posited, “and Bibby carried it back to Colorado in his duffle bag to give to Mrs. Worlman. That’s how it got its library stamp. Bibby is probably long gone by now, though, some of those old cowboys live until their nineties and one hundreds – fresh air, cigarette smoke and range meat embalmed them forever. So far away from society.”
Amy sighed into the phone, and Sarah felt it. “I keep meaning to visit sometime,” Amy concluded as she put down the phone. Sarah turned away and saw her reflection nodding in the living room window.
When she went to sleep that night, Sarah’s heart beat a little faster in her chest and she had to take deep breaths until it slowed.
* * *
After the arrival of the internationally award-winning book of international photography, there had been a brief period of time where the girls were sent to live with their grandparents in France. It should have been a great summer adventure filled with airplane rides and cheese. There was every kind of cheese a young girl could imagine. Sarah’s sister devoured it all, from Gruyere to Camembert to Bleu de Sassenage. Her sister credited that first summer in France for the introduction to her second language and the creation of her now-successful cheese shop in Portland. Sarah, who was lactose-intolerant, credited that summer in France for learning to cope with a solitary life, and the only French she could pronounce correctly.
“Oui, gran mere, and merci, gran pere.”
That summer, no well-framed photographs were delivered in well-packed crates to the small apartment on the outskirts of Nieme, but letters had arrived from their mother in America which their gran mere did her best to read in English using a bright, loud voice, even though she had tears in her eyes. The letters were scribbled in crayon.
* * *
When the plane landed in Denver, Sarah pushed through the crowd of tired-eyed travelers wearing backpacks, fingers clutched around briefcases or children, and took the escalator down to the underground tram. After grabbing her single suitcase at baggage claim, she raced outside to see the sky. But it was only a cold parking structure.
When she finally exited at the right level, the Rockies in the far distance were almost obscured by pollution. But as she drove the rental car from the white tent-like structure, the runways and people grew smaller and the fields covered in brown grass spread out on either side, and then she realized that the sky was wide. There was a lot of space, and it occurred to her that a person could get lost in so much space. The thought made her feel empty, but less lonely inside. She’d already been lost for a long time.
Headed through the carved-out mountains on Highway 285, the brown lifted and the sky grew to an intense blue. Sarah scanned the road ahead, afraid she’d hit an animal. Outside of a town named Bailey, she pulled into a parking lot. The air was thin and clean and she felt hungry and light-headed. She bought a scoop of homemade peach ice cream inside a log cabin that had been converted into a small tourist stop with feathered dream catchers, turquoise jewelry, cowboy hats and a soda counter. She ate the treat sitting on the hood of the car with her face turned up to the sun.
From there on, Sarah drove with the driver’s window rolled down. It was chilly outside. Despite the fact that it was spring, small hard patches of snow still clung to the side of the road. She liked the cold against her ear and cheek and the way the wind blew her hair as if she were someone strong and adventurous; perhaps even, beautiful.
Near Jefferson, the road narrowed into two lanes, curving like a dark ribbon through the tall slopes of blue green, making its way along a special human path. As the snowy peaks grew closer, she realized that she was traveling far away from her life. At times, a river came into view and the sight of the white caps rushing over boulders was exhilarating.
“This is the spring run-off,” a tall, wiry gas station attendant informed her sorrowfully, but the water seem wide to her. Several miles later, the rocky cliffs on either side suddenly gave way into a wide grassy meadow where cows grazed alongside a herd of elk. Sarah pulled the car over to take a photograph with the throw-away camera she’d purchased at Rite-Aid before leaving California. The stillness held her to that spot until she almost forgot herself standing there.
The book sat on the passenger seat. It had missed her father’s birthday. Scrawled across the inside title page of Buena Vista, Colorado Memories, in the same neat black ink penmanship he’d used to write the note:
An autographed copy. Not autographed directly to Mrs. Worlman, but as close to an I think of you as men from those parts ever gave. She had to learn the story of the book’s travels. As if by tracing the life of a thing she might come to make sense of her own.
* * *
Shortly before their mother died of ovarian cancer, she’d dictated a letter for Sarah to mail to her father. Long after the fire, her mother had desired only one thing – but one person could not return another’s dignity. Sarah didn’t mail the letter.
Her father was living with a grad student in Buenos Aires, finishing a series for the National in Paris. His lens was obscured from the lives that he hadn’t created on photographic paper. And so Sarah typed the kind of reply a person might need to move on. When she read the faux-note several days later in hospice, her mother smiled and whispered, “Thank you, Sarah.” It made Sarah wonder if her mother was finally free from delusion. Three weeks later, the sisters buried her outside of her childhood home in Vermont. They did not invite their father to the funeral.
Buena Vista had three kinds of people: locals, students, and tourists. Sarah snapped pictures of all of them. The tourists flocked in groups and waited in line for white water rafting tours or mountain climbing instructors. The instructors were either students or locals. The locals, at the market and on the street, kept their eyes averted and several times she checked the zipper on her jeans to be certain she was decent. She’d imagined a place with wooden sidewalks, but it was just another town, filled with mini-malls with faux-frontier facades. There were no hitching posts, only a steady stream of SUVs and RVs on the main street. It was early spring, still fairly cold, and she’d forgotten about spring break vacation. Still, a few men, as if in her fantasies, wore boots and wide-brimmed cowboy hats.
She found a room, not fancy but clean, in an old motel with a natural hot springs, up the dirt road outside of town. The hot water smelled like sulfur and late that first night she slapped around in the pool like a newborn baby; hot water, cold air, her breath rising and falling in front of her face like the hot steam rising from the ground. The few people soaking had smiled, but did not say hello. The stars were better than the ceiling of the Planetarium during a Pink Floyd extravaganza, and she drank a bottle of red wine and then woke up early the next morning with a throbbing headache.
Tuesday, November 6, 1973
Please give this book to Mrs. Worlman.
Thanks a bunch!
“The book received its stamp here,” Sarah informed the handsome young librarian with the deep brown eyes standing behind the library counter, “before winding up on sale in a dusty, dark library in North Hollywood where they let the homeless sleep in the overstuffed leather chairs during the day. I originally bought it as a gift for my father but then decided to solve the mystery.”
The young man leaned over and whispered that Mrs. Worlman, the town librarian, had passed away in twenty-ten. He paused for a moment so that Sarah could register the loss. Mrs. Worlman was the teacher who encouraged Doug McGee to write down his stories as a young man in high school, he continued.
The young librarian moved around from behind the counter. He had a decided limp, but Sarah was not a person bothered by imperfections. Mrs. Worlman motivated Doug to break free and see the world, which is why he’d enlisted to fight the big War against his grandparents’ wishes. The McGee’s never spoke to Mrs. Worlman again and when she retired from teaching, she became the town librarian. The young librarian with the limp knew these things because Mrs. Worlman was his great-aunt.
“You might never learn,” he whispered to Sarah, “how Doug McGee’s family memoir made its way to you. This is all a part of the mystery of the inner workings of life that people are not necessarily meant to discover.”
As she walked back down the library steps, back to her rental car, Sarah whispered the young librarian’s words under her breath.
“The mystery of the inner workings of life, the mystery of the inner workings of life, the mystery of the inner workings of life.”
Throughout the day, she repeated the phrase, once even yelling it aloud to the wind and trees from the open car window on the road back to her motel – the mystery of the inner workings of life!
A horrible lifelong weight was rising from the center of her chest. Doug McGee wrote the book and gave it to Bibby in California. Bibby traveled back to Buena Vista and gave it to Mrs. Worlman. Mrs. Worlman, upon her death, bequeathed the book to The Buena Vista Public Library. From the Buena Vista Public Library, the book traveled in the care of a stranger whom she would never meet, back over the Continental Divide into California, finding its resting place in a North Hollywood Library sales bin. If there was something unseen and powerful in the universe, with which Sarah herself had absolutely nothing to do, it meant that her future might still hold some kind of magic.
Sarah met the handsome young librarian after work Friday afternoon. The sun was low, turning the evergreen and pine warm and golden. He smiled as he climbed into her car and gave her the directions. Sarah held out Doug’s note.
“Nobody says, ‘Thanks a bunch!’ anymore,” the young librarian commented, and they smiled at each other.
The Buena Vista Cemetery was a small plot of uphill land north of town. Square and rectangular slabs of stone, dating as far the seventeen-hundreds, crawled up the hillside toward the sky. The McGee headstones stood in two neat lines and two neat rows and she followed the handsome young librarian (in cowboy hat), her heart beating with excitement, as he limped toward the family. Searching for the names of the people from her favorite portrait, the first McGee’s, until she found the three, side by side. She lifted her camera and took a picture.
Good father and husband
Gone to be With the Lord
Beloved Wife & Mother
Resting With Jesus
Resting With the Angels
After she had finished visiting the McGee’s, the handsome young librarian took her hand and led her forward.
Beloved Teacher and Town Librarian
Reading in Heaven
After she had shot her last photograph, Sarah climbed to the top of the cemetery hill. She cried for some time. Long after the sun had set and the stars lit the dark mountain sky. She cried for Patrick and Iris, gone in the same year. And for their son, Keenan, dead at the tender age of twenty-one. She cried for all of the lost McGee sons and daughters, for Doug and Mrs. Worlman, people all long gone. She cried for the sorrow of her mother, and for her father who loved only the ghostly images of those who’d never belonged to him. But mostly, Sarah wept for her younger, lost and gone, forlorn self.
When she finished, her hands were blue like ice from the night air, and so the handsome young librarian took her to dinner at a local restaurant where sawdust covered the floor and the brown plastic eyes of taxidermy elk and moose stared down without resentment upon the diners. She ordered the steak, rare, which impressed him. He had venison. They drank wine and the handsome young librarian cautioned her of the effects of high altitude. She laughed and said it was far too late for that.
Later, she invited him back to the hot springs and he gladly accepted. The pool hours posted on the wooden gate declared, “No Visitors After 10 pm!” and it was well after midnight, but they opened the latch anyway and giggled, letting themselves in.
In the still quiet of a mountain night, Sarah allowed herself to lay back in the handsome young librarian’s arms as he’d instructed in his best whisper. The warm water washed over her skin and she took a deep breath and closed her eyes. This was when she realized that she would never return to the assistant job at the office supply magazine. She would never again stare at her father’s framed photographs hanging on the walls in her apartment in Los Angeles.
She was free to roam the wild mountains in search of Bibby. And from her wanderings, create images which she would make her own. With the throw-away camera she’d purchased from Rite Aid in California.
Staci Greason has published in Brevity, Slate, AFLW, Lunch Ticket, and the Huff Post, among others. Her novel, The Last Great American Housewife, is on Amazon. In her past life, she played the late Isabella Toscano on Days of Our Lives. When she isn’t writing, she loves helping fellow scribes at The Write Muse (www.thewritemuse.biz). A late bloomer, Staci recently married for the first time at the age of 53, and now lives in Southern California with her husband, his kids, their dogs, and two cats who don’t belong to anybody.