It was warm enough, at 10 a.m., that people were already water skiing on the lake. A row of pines blocked her view of the water, but Wyshona could hear the engines buzzing. She’d been sitting in her lawn chair at the campsite watching the shadows disappear, reading, scribbling in her notebook, sipping her coffee. A bear had been spotted in the campground, a cute blonde ranger, maybe 20 years old, had stopped in to say.
"So watch your dog," the ranger said. "Keep him tied up. And don't leave any food out. We don't want the bear to turn into a moocher." As if to reply, Orville moaned and turned over, exposing his belly, a blonde even paler than the ranger’s. "What is he, some kind of hound?"
Wyshona shrugged. "Some kind. He's a pound dog. Barely escaped death row."
The ranger straightened her ponytail. “Good for you." She glanced at the license plate on Wyshona's truck. "Virginia. Long way from home." Wyshona could see her taking stock of the tent, the backpack stove on the table. “You just like travellin’ around?"
At times, for such interrogators, Wyshona made up elaborate stories. "Actually, I'm an anthropologist," Wyshona said, entertaining herself. "I'm taking notes." She indicated the pad and pencil in her lap. "Identifying the rituals and social structures of people in campgrounds." She picked up her pencil and cocked her head toward a neighboring campsite, two trailers with a tarp stretched between them, Christmas lights draped about their perimeter, their whining spaniel chained to a post. "Take those people over there," she said to the ranger, nodding toward her neighbors. She flipped through her pad, as if looking at her notes. "Wednesday night. 11 p.m. Subjects play loud music on their TV. Thursday. Midnight. Loud music again. Friday 7 p.m. Subjects throw gasoline on their fire.” She looked at the ranger. “In a way you could say they're the dominant group here."
"I might be able to do something about that," said the ranger, hands on her hips.
When the ranger was out of sight, Wyshona snapped closed her pad. Actually it included a record of expenses, projected expenses, present and future income. The figures were dismal. Soon she'd have to get a job. It was late September. She'd been on the road four months. Everything cost more than she'd anticipated--not that she'd anticipated any of it at all. But it had been worth it--the leafy beauty of the Smokies with its muddy creeks, where her vowels were long; the flat cornfields of Indiana where the boy who’d replaced her lost gas cap at the service station told her he’d moved up from Florida to look after his sick grandmother and met his future wife. When Wyshona wished them good luck, he said, “Oh, I’ll take good keer of her.” “Take keer,” she’d said for a few hundred miles as a way of saying “You’re welcome” when the cashier thanked her for buying gas.
Then on to Rocky Mountain National Park, Yellowstone and the Tetons, Glacier National Park, the Columbia Icefield in Jaspar, BC, where she just about froze to death in her medium-weight bag, an event that, though she'd thought of heading for Alaska, made her turn back south. She'd stopped--who knows why?--in McCall, Idaho, maybe because the mountains around the lake were softer, a little more like those she was used to back East, especially in the small Southwestern Virginia town she'd escaped as soon as she was able.
Yes, up to this point, her trip had been quite an odyssey, although she'd left no Penelope to keep the home fires burning, for at the moment she had no home, the home having--as they say--been broken, a word that brought to mind her former brick rancher in its Virginia Beach neighborhood cleaved in two, air conditioners still rumbling in the windows. The tall straight loblollies in the yards, the manicured azaleas, the dandelion-free lawns were supposed to keep away harm. Harm certainly wouldn’t come to her when Brad was home, she’d thought. Only when he was at sea, flying over the Gulf, keeping an eye on Saddam Hussein. When Brad was gone like that, she took to praying, to whom she didn’t quite know. But when he was home-perhaps this had been her sin--she did not. When he said he had to stay late at the base, she believed him. When he said he’d had a few drinks with his friends, that was all right, too.
He didn’t come home drunk. Drunk was her uncle passing out face-first into his plate every Thanksgiving. Drunk was her sweaty cousin pressing her up against the outhouse. Drunk was her father in the arm chair surrounded by beer cans while she or her sister changed her grandmother’s diapers and got supper on the table before her mother came home from cleaning the school.
No hound dog like the ones chained behind the trailer had taught her how to sniff out deception. Where she grew up, whatever trouble there was, it hung out like the wash for everyone to see. But in the Virginia Beach neighborhood, where she had lived with Brad, a big green sign in the flower-laden entryway declared that you were in Heron's Landing, Bird Sanctuary. Not only was there no dirty laundry-apparently no one needed clotheslines at all.
Wyshona sighed and rested her hand on Orville's head again, fondling his silky ears. He, at least, was faithful. The sun was taking over her campsite now, burning through the pines, leaving only the few feet of shade she and Orville now occupied. She threw the last of her coffee from the mug in her hand onto the ground.
"What shall we do, fella?"
Orville's tail thumped.
"Go for a walk?"
He lifted his head and wagged.
She stood up, Orville's leash in hand. "Come on. Let's see if we can find that bear."
When she stood up, Cassie-the chained-up spaniel next door-started barking, leaping in her direction, blunt tail blurred with motion, yelping and twisting in an effort to get free. She knew the dog’s name because she’d heard the Christmas-light-family yell at it so often, and predictably, a man’s voice called out from the trailer, “Cassie, shut the hell up!” He opened the trailer door and lobbed a beer can at the dog. It struck her square in the snout, and she yelped even louder.
Last night there’d been a brief period when Cassie had got loose. The entire family-men, women, kids and grandparents, circled their trailers, calling sweetly. “Come on, Cassie. Here Cassie. Come get your dinner, girl.”
Wyshona had wanted to yell, run Cassie run. Why would the dog want to return to her chain and her abuse? Every day Cassie whined and paced in the circle around her post. When the whining and barking got too loud, someone cursed her or threw something at her or backhanded her across the snout. Run Cassie run, Wyshona thought. Never come back. She imagined Cassie, snout to the ground, ears flopping merrily, tail going like a propeller, roaming the woods, some pleasant person in L.L. Bean clothes who didn’t own a television and who supported public radio finding her and taking her in. She imagined the newly adopted Cassie on one of those cushy dog beds in front of a woodstove, her coat brushed to a shine.
But the stupid dog had come back. She wagged at her abusers as if they were friends. They chained her up again, lowered themselves into their lawn chairs, and turned on their television. Loud.
“Ah hate stupid peahple,” bellowed the TV comedian Jeff Foxworthy in his country-western voice, and Wyshona thought, Then you hate yourself.
If she could have kicked in their TV set, unstrung their Christmas lights, and pushed their trailers into the lake, she would have done it. They would only populate the world with cowering dogs and miserable children. They’d leave beer cans strewn along the lakes and rivers, and the butts of their cigarettes would litter the beaches, common as their belches and farts.
Cassie’s barking and yelping was coming, now, from inside Wyshona’s head. Each yelp carried a ping that penetrated her right temple. Her eyes ached. She clenched her jaw, locked her truck and walked along the paved loop of the campground, heading for a trail she’d seen earlier. Orville kept the leash taut, as usual, nose to ground. Trailers occupied their pull-throughs, hoses and electrical cords extended to the hook-up posts-alien rectangular creatures feeding through some bizarre umbilicus. She should have gone backpacking. It was a mistake to let herself be rounded up into this zoo. Such zoos should be outlawed, the primitive creatures they attracted stuck into a suburb someplace and shot. She despised the RVs, especially those with Christmas lights, TV antennaes, generators and air conditioners riding their tops. Why go camping? Why not stay home? Orville yanked at the leash, pulling her arm from the shoulder. It was getting hot. She swatted at a black fly that stung the back of her leg.
What was it the Taoist said? Do you want to improve the world? Absolutely, Wyshona thought. Let’s start by getting rid of all the RVs and those who inhabit them. The noise, the clutter, the litter. All that is obnoxious. Those who deceive us and those who let us down. Let’s blot out hurt and sorrow, hunger and sickness. Adultery, divorce, enforced isolation. But the Taoist answered his own question: I don’t think it can be done.
Miraculously, Cassie finally stopped barking. For a few moments, the campground was still, most of the occupants fleeing the heat, heading for the lake with their life preservers and inner tubes. She could hear more boat engines revving. Those too, she thought. Let’s get rid of those too.
A few children ran by, chasing each other, making her chest ache. By now, back in Virginia Beach, she'd be a month into her third grade class. They'd be learning their cursive, always a particular delight, like teaching them a secret code. This would be the first time in five years she didn't have her own class. Possibly she'd thrown the proverbial baby out with the bath water, but she'd wanted nothing to remind her of her former life, not even the predictable and soothing rhythms of the school year.
A little girl on a pink and purple bike pedaled past, her freckled face solemn under a baseball cap. Wyshona recognized her by the round glasses and brown pigtails. She belonged to the Christmas lights. The family, an odd assortment--as she'd gathered from overhearing their loud conversations--consisted of parents, grandparents, and a couple of hulking uncles as well as three boys who already spit tobacco juice and a baby who, judging by the wailing, must have had colic. Wyshona had been camping in her spot for four days, and for those four days she'd watched the girl play quietly by herself, pedaling her bike around the circle. Occasionally they took the girl to the lake but, more often than not, her mother was left tending the baby while her father, the uncles and the boys went out in the speed boat. Wyshona guessed the girl might be eight or nine--close to the ages of Wyshona's third-graders.
When Wyshona got to the trailhead, the girl was already there, straddling her bike, studying the sign. A pink lunchbasket was strapped to the handlebars of her bike. She looked at Wyshona. "Are you going on this trail?"
"Does your dog bite?"
Orville was already wagging his tail, jaws open in a grin.
"No. You can pet him.”
The girl reached out a hand. “I have a dog, too.”
“I know. Cassie.”
The girl looked at Wyshona with surprise. Orville rubbed his snout into the girl’s hand. She giggled. "His nose is wet."
"What's your name?" Wyshona asked.
"Nice name. I'm Wyshona."
"Oh." She put the kickstand down to park her bike. She put her arms around Orville.
"I think he likes you," Wyshona said.
Orville licked Rose’s face.
Rose looked up at Wyshona. "Where are your kids?"
"I don't have any."
"Oh." Rose put her face in Orville's fur, then rested her cheek on his back. "Does that make you sad?"
"A little.” She and Brad had been putting off the decision. Good thing, she supposed-though who knew? A baby might have convinced him to stay home nights.
"My mom says she'd be sad if she didn't have us."
Wyshona had noted the mother's washed-out face and flabby arms, the desperation with which she smoked cigarettes when the baby was sleeping. There was a grandmother, too, a large woman with several chins who sometimes jiggled the baby, singing it songs, but more often than not sat in her trailer, watching television.
"If you're going on this trail, can I come with you?" Rose asked.
"Would it be okay with your mom?”
Rose puckered her face. "She won't even notice."
Wyshona winced at the probable truth in this. "But if she did notice, would it be all right?"
Rose pointed to her lunch basket. "Well she did pack me a lunch. She said I should go off and play and eat my lunch someplace."
Wyshona shrugged. "All right. Okay. Why not? Orville and I would be glad for your company.”
The trail, wide and gravelled, practically a road, was marked for mountain bikes, but just now no one else was in sight. Rose pedaled ahead, making Orville whine and strain at the leash, yanking Wyshona’s arm as she struggled to hold him back.
Finally Rose stopped her bike. "You know." She blinked her eyes at Wyshona. "Nobody's on this trail. You could probably just let him go."
“He would love a good run,” Wyshona said. “And he does pretty well at coming when I call. As long as you’re not scared of him." Rose shook her head. Wyshona thought briefly about the ranger’s warning, the bear, but it was late morning. No doubt the bear was holed up someplace in the shade. Even if it were still nearby, black bears were rarely aggressive. Wyshona unclipped the leash from Orville’s collar. "Okay, boy."
Orville sprang away joyously, galloping next to Rose's bike, and for a moment it was as if Rose were Wyshona's own little girl, riding along next to the family dog. They were all in a Disney movie, weren't they?--and Wyshona was--healthy white woman, though with kinky hair and crooked teeth--the perfect Disney mom. Oh, if only all really was right with the world, if only everything and everyone were in place like that, Disney mom with father off felling a tree but sure to be home by the fireside that night, loyal as Old Yeller.
The sky was so blue it was almost purple above the pines. Huckleberry bushes grew densely in the understory. Occasionally Wyshona plucked one off its twig and popped it into her mouth, savoring its tart flavor. She paused to read a sign about how the ponderosa pine forest was maintained by controlled burning. The controlled burns were also responsible for the pleasant openness under the trees. Very different from the tangle of the eastern forests. Controlled burn. Wyshona liked the idea. Metaphorically speaking, it suggested a kind of passion she could live with. Monogamous, for instance. She sighed and craned her neck backward to look at the sky, trying to clear her mind of the oft-recurring image she had of Brad screwing some other woman.
"It is cool under the pines," she said aloud. It was a habit that averted hysteria, narrating the present to herself. The sun was intense, though, where it burned through the forest. "You're going to be all right." She'd had many moments of peace by herself next to her campfires. However, she reminded herself, at the moment she was not on her own. At the moment she was Disney mom. Orville and Rose had disappeared from view, and gradually she became aware of noises ahead, something like screaming and growling.
"Oh shit." She launched into a dead run along the graveled path, forest blurring on either side of her, feet occasionally slipping on the rocks, lungs aching, calf muscles straining, not sacrificing speed but pushing, pushing, until she could see something ahead. First she made out Rose and the bicycle, Rose standing and clutching the handlebars, Rose screaming, screaming and crying as she looked off into the woods where Orville was apparently fighting, fighting with some kind of big dog --a black Lab?--no, not a dog at all; it was a bear, a small bear but bear enough to do some damage.
Orville was bleeding--she could see that as she closed up the distance between them, just as she could see that he was nevertheless holding his ground, keeping himself between Rose and the bear although he could have got away quite easily; he was clever and fast in the woods. He kept leaping for the bear's throat, but the bear, although small, was still bigger than Orville, and with a swat of its paw the bear sent Orville yelping back.
"Orville!" Wyshona got up next to Rose, squeezed the girl's shoulder, then grabbed a big stick she saw lying on the ground next to a deadfall and advanced on the bear. "Get away, you! Get off my dog!" She waved the stick. She wanted to kill the bear, wanted to bash its stupid skull in. "Orville, come!"
But Orville kept leaping after the bear which, seeing Wyshona, had become distracted, so that Orville was able to clomp his jaws into the bear's chest. The bear bellowed and bit Orville's neck. Wyshona heard a pop like the breaking of a stick. The dog fell in a heap, whimpering, and Wyshona rushed at the bear, waving the stick. The bear turned and ran.
Wyshona knelt over Orville. His head had fallen at an odd angle. She stroked his ear, then put one hand under his head, lifting it slightly. His big jowls rested on her hand. Saliva dripped from his mouth, wetting her fingers. The ground was dry and hard, and the dust coated his fur, turning it brown except where the bear had bitten and scratched him, opening big, ugly wounds on his neck and back. He had been barking and leaping only a moment ago, ignoring her calls as he bit into the bear’s chest. Now he was still, his eyes shut. A clump of the bear’s black fur was still stuck to his nose. If she had not called him, if she had not interfered, perhaps he would have kept his distance from the bear. Perhaps he would be limping along with her now, as she took him back along the trail to the campground, Rose walking her bike beside them.
Wyshona looked back at the path, but the girl and her bike were gone. Just as well. Just as well. Let her go back to the campground, Maybe get some help. The bear had turned and run in a direction opposite the bike trail. Rose would be all right.
She gathered Orville into her arms. Usually when she tried to hold him, he bore the weight of his own head, sometimes waving his paws in the air as if he were swimming. The memory made her cry. She lifted Orville and started to carry him along the path. His blood smeared on her hands, her T-shirt. She staggered under the weight of his body, as she had staggered into the truck under the weight of her gear after Brad had said he didn’t want to cheat her anymore, he was in love with someone else. Orville had been standing next to Brad on the porch. When she'd called him, he bounded into the passenger seat gleefully, hoping for a walk on the beach, a good romp.
"I'm taking the dog," she'd said. Brad had watched, big as ever in the doorway, still wearing his khaki uniform, holding his arms folded across his belly as if he’d just been hit. That was the last she’d seen of him. Let him file the papers if he wanted a divorce. Let him try to track her down for whatever signatures he needed. Let him worry about her safety as she had worried about his for five years, especially when his ship was in the Gulf and she dreamed, again and again, of his plane going down in the water.
She could have gone home to her family but all she could think of was her grandmother, when she heard of people who’d left the mountains and got into trouble, saying, “That’s what happens to them that gets above their raisin’.” At least that’s what she would have said back in the days when she could still talk, before that last stroke. Her sister might have understood, but with four babies of her own-pregnant at sixteen and pregnant ever since-she didn’t have much left for Wyshona. Last time she’d seen them all-Easter weekend-they’d sat out on the porch admiring the new green buds on the trees and the daffodils that came up out of the earth. The men had, as usual, got drunk, the TV blared, and one of her sister’s kids got stuck when he crawled under the trailer porch. The hound dogs out back howled and barked, chained to their houses until hunting season came round. They were dogs she’d pitied all her life as they paced back and forth along the length of their chains, making trenches in the dirt.
At least Orville hadn’t had a life like that, though as a hound dog, he'd harbored that fatal lust for bear in his blood. She shouldn't have let him roam. Not here. Not after the ranger's warning.
He was heavy, terribly heavy. Her arms ached. Her legs quivered. Sunlight filtered through the pines, heating the woods, making her sweat. She squatted for a moment, breathing.
She wiped her eyes and looked down the path. Rose appeared, walking next to her bike, with her grandmother and a couple of her uncles, wearing their cowboy hats and bathing suits, big bellies burned red. The grandmother’s floral housedress stuck to her thighs. She limped along in her sneakers.
"Oh my dear," the grandmother said, her face crumpling into her neck.
Rose looked solemnly at Orville, then at her grandmother. Her lips quivered as she touched Orville’s head. "He saved me.”
One of the uncles took Orville gently from Wyshona's arms. "Let me carry her for you, honey. I'll take him back to camp."
“Much obliged,” Wyshona said, using an expression she’d grown up with.
The grandmother put her arm around Wyshona's shoulders. "They'll help you bury him." She smelled of cigarettes and sweat.
Leaning against her, Wyshona was a child again, resting against her mother as the bulldozer lifted her uncle’s cow into its grave. “It’s his own damn fault,” her mother hissed as they watched her uncle standing apart from them, cap in hand, weeping. Drunk, he’d mistaken his favorite cow for a deer in the field behind his house. When Wyshona couldn’t bear to look at him anymore, she gazed instead into the tangled woods and into the blue sky overhead. She closed her eyes and listened. She was glad she wasn’t like the cow, stiff and dead, swallowed in that hole by the darkness and eternal quiet. It was even all right with her to listen to the growling and squealing of the bulldozer, as ugly as it was--a sound not unlike the rumbling of the RV generators as the procession passed.