The dashboard gave off ten-year-old new-car-smell. Grant climbed into the driver’s seat and felt the packet of Advil Cheryl had tucked into his pocket. The newscaster’s voice was muddled by the fan, and outside, the sky was becoming lighter. Grant felt sick, like he was hung over.
“Are we okay for gas?” asked Pete, taking the passenger side seat.
Grant nodded. “Nice suit.”
“Your wife called to tell you to drive careful,” he said.
The ice on the windshield was gone. Now, there were geese above the rooftops, wobbly v’s hanging on a point heading south.
When Vir showed up, he put a pillow against the window and leaned against it, eyes already closed. Next to him, Owen put his hands on Grant’s seat and pulled closer. “I think Jan would have liked Burma.”
Grant put the car into gear, and pulled onto the road. He felt sick, hung over, something. Anything. The sun flashed in his face, telling him no, it was nothing. Nothing at all.
“Anyway, there isn’t much left of the old man. He’s retired and he’s happy, so that’s that.” Pete took a breath. “Vir still sleeping?”
Grant peeked at Owen in the rear-view mirror. He was sitting straight up, as though his suit would collapse if he let it touch too much of the back seat. “Uh huh,” Owen said, like he’d been talking along. “In Burma, it’s the same temperature in January as it is in July. They’re mostly Buddhists, but they have over two hundred thousand people in their military. Buddhists fight, too.”
“The hell,” put in Pete.
“I once paid 5900 kyats for a potted plant,” admitted Owen.
“Sounds like a lot of fun,” remarked Pete. “I hear Buddhist girls are really something. What do you say, Owen? Are Buddhist girls really something?”
“Shut up,” Grant told him.
“This one time,” said Owen, like he hadn’t heard a word. He was sweating, but wouldn’t take off the jacket. “This one time, I chased a dog off my doorstep. It was a thin grey thing with big eyes. I swore at it in English. At the time I didn’t have any choice, I hadn’t learned much Burmese. My neighbour saw me and started yelling until everyone in the street stopped to yell too. I went to work hungry. Those days, I could never eat, everything made me sick. When I came home, that neighbour’s kids were throwing rocks at the same dog.” Owen sighed. “Jan hated dogs, but it’s fine. She would have liked Burma.”
Grant signalled and made ready to pass the car in front of him. A hint of cigarette smoke came from the black sport utility. The driver-side window was down, a tattooed arm hanging out of it. Grant caught a glimpse of a moustache and sunglasses, the movement of a head turning.
“Jan should have come to visit me when she had the chance. She was planning on it.” Owen’s shoulders rose to meet his chin. “But she hated that they’d changed the name to Myanmar. She thought it was a joke, a really bad one. And now there’s no place in the world called Burma.
In the mountains ahead, snow slid out from under a fog, as though it were heavy and tired of living so high, where nothing ever went. Grant tried to drive faster, but the road was full, the way clogged with everyone who didn’t care about what he wanted.
“She should have gotten married and gone home,” said Pete. “But Jan never listened to people. She listened to television more than she did to people. God,” he whispered, playing with a vent, “she would have made a great mother. Can you imagine her with kids? Can you imagine little people looking like Jan?”
Grant thought about Cheryl, and how she would be at the mall looking for a picnic basket for next year. Only three weeks ago, they’d been in Lake Placid, driving through the winding roads. Cheryl had turned the music down and opened the windows so that they could hear the fall leaves. But Grant had been elsewhere, in another version of the place. He’d imagined what Lake Placid might have looked like if they’d stumbled on it by accident rather than via connect-the-dots, how much deeper and cooler the lakes might have looked if they’d spilled into view rather than been foreshadowed by a map – how much sweeter it might have been to be naked in a glen with his wife during the midday than on the way to satisfy a hotel reservation. Cheryl came flooding into him, as a sign spelled the name of a place where twenty three thousand people lived.
“What about Chuck?” asked Owen. “I think she liked Chuck.”
Pete snarled. “Forget it. Maybe in that first year. But then she realized that he was treating her like crap. She admitted it once, remember? We were at Vir’s, in the basement, watching football. She was soaking up beer from the carpet. Then she started crying and said it, that he was treating her like crap. She got rid of him the next week. Maybe it took Jan a little while to catch on to what was going on. But when she did, she moved fast.” Pete tapped his fingers against the window. “She didn’t love him. She never loved any man.”
Grant thought about a patch of gravel on a hillside in Lake Placid. Above it, a path wound its way up towards the top of the mountain. He’d tried to walk up it, only to find it as slippery as car tires on an unpaved shoulder. Dried mud had turned to dust under his feet, and he’d stumbled over and over again. Finally, Cheryl had told him to come back down, and they’d gone into town to buy pottery from Chile.
Grant turned the wheel and slowed down. Ahead, a bridge spanned the highway and shot towards the southeast. A line of transport trucks was already on the off ramp, showing their slogans to the countryside. Grant moved the car to join them.
Vir had fallen asleep again, his head buried in the pillow. His black hair, down to his shoulders on most days, was against the seat in a traditional knot. Next to him, Owen was sleeping as well, straight up. Occasionally, he would start half-awake to find a better position.
“He didn’t have to say that. I loved her too,” breathed Pete.
Grant nodded. He remembered Jan and how her eyes cast about for insects that could walk on water, how she would angle her head so that she had one eye beneath the surface and one above it. At the cottage, that was how it had been. She’d return from a hike with a handful of inedible berries, their juices on her fingers and her giggling about having smelled a bear. Later, she’d sit on the dock and shine the welcome bells with turpentine, or mesh twine until she had a fishing net. When it rained, Jan wished that she could make her arms more brown. When it was cold, her stomach moved beneath her shirt.
If there were ever a valley to be seen, Jan went into it to find the creek that had to be there. If there were ever a rock shelf, she had to uncover the snake that would be sunning itself on grains of sand. Jan conquered the names of leaves, the shapes of trees – and one day, she’d come back from a hike smiling, the same Jan who’d left smiling. Old Jan, friend Jan, same Jan, always there, casting for fish she would not eat. Grant remembered her standing on a boulder, dancing to avoid the flies.
Jan holding a pot over the fire, her hair dripping. A laugh, a smile and the heat from fire-warmed rocks; a story, a half-done song and sky cooled by night. Names spilling like words often do. Grant remembered a mountain bed made of leaves. Thighs and bare skin, the smudge of mud. A convulsion, a whisper, a denial, then the sun. Scents of the country, like love, paced by a heartbeat. Paced by two. A branch attacking a knee driven deep into the mountain bed. Fingers fleeing, a shudder that comes once, that never returns, that so empty returns; returns, only like fingers, to flee. Jan with new eyes. The question: tomorrow the day dawns and next year the mountain bed is rot, and this grassy moss which takes over, does it love you as much as I do now?
“Grant,” said Pete. “Grant, you missed the exit. You better turn around.”
Grant thought of Cheryl, home from the mall and sitting in front of the television. Maybe out in the garden listening to the geese fly. He thought about stopping somewhere and calling her. He found an exit and headed north. On the horizon, hills stretched into the dusk. Of the mountain bed hidden in the faraway land, not a sign remained.
Grant stood on a small plot of land. He watched a little girl tease a boy around the base of a lamppost. Beyond them, something was moving about in a weeping willow, making its way up the branches to the crown.
It was the end of the day, as Jan had wanted. Grant sighed in the still air, in the warmth carried over from the sunlight. Jan was a few feet away.
Pete went to her and tried to keep from crying. Owen went to her too, and laid something down. He whispered what sounded like a confession: “Jan, I got this from Rangoon. It’s not much. It’s nothing at all. Next time, we’ll go together. The next time, get on the plane and come see me, okay?”
Vir came after, his hair about his shoulders. On his knees, he bowed a long, low bow.
Grant thought about Cheryl. She would be driving, sniffling about the rain. After dinner, she would call to ask how things had gone. He would talk about the drive, the heat in the car, and what he was about to do. The others were watching.
Jan liked leaves better than flowers. Jan had a name for everything that the world didn’t. Jan with new eyes, spent on the mountain bed, telling him long ago how this would go. Grant felt his heart pounding against the low light. He shuffled forward and saw his breath in the evening. It drew out before him, and beyond the cloud, there was a rumour of hills, the pastel marker swish of dawn – that, and the hint of the world where real fog came from, the same place where secrets still lived, and danced their way into sunset.