Authors: Novella Carpenter
The Rough House: half-built in 1973 and, finally, finished, 1976.
drove into Orofino, past the Pink House Hole where Bill and I had camped for a few days back in August. The Idaho air felt different; it was saturated with water, and the broad-leaf trees had turned yellow amid a delirium of evergreen. The river was swollen and moved faster than it had in the summer. As I drove over the bridge and passed the Ponderosa Café, I got that “coming home” feeling. A fullness in my stomach and chest. A slight flutter of panic—a feeling of drowning. What am I doing here?
On this trip to Orofino, Bill hadn’t come with me. He was on goat birth watch—the does were due any day. I missed him. But I did have the help and support of some of the happy hippies from Farm Out. Lowell, Phil, and Tom had recently met up and decided they wanted to help me on my “dad quest,” as they were calling it. It was decided that Tom, my mom’s ex-boyfriend, would pick me up at the Lewiston airport and let me borrow his car to drive to Orofino. Lowell
and Phil cleared out the little hand-built cabin on Farm Out so I would have a place to stay. Phil sent me a couple more stories he remembered from the old days that might give me some perspective about my dad.
The only problem was my dad wouldn’t be there. Two days before my flight was due to leave for Idaho, he had sent me an e-mail:
hi sweets, heading to Az this am, will contact when settled. best love always, pops
Stunned, I reread his message. He knew I was coming to see him, and he was leaving. I had all these do-gooder notions about how I was going to help my old, broken dad out. But now that he was blowing me off—yet another time—it triggered a wave of anger that I realized had always floated deep down in me. Fuck him, I said out loud.
Later that day, I called my mom to tell her that Dad had left Idaho.
“Can you get your money back for the plane ticket?” she had asked, ever the pragmatist.
“Oh, I’m still going,” I said.
She sounded shocked. “Why?”
I felt the familiar red-hot anger. “He’s going to find out that you can’t just make someone—there are consequences.”
“Watch the drama,” she advised, and I remembered her story about wanting to burn down the house.
• • •
I deplaned at the Lewiston airport, forty-seven miles east of Orofino, and was greeted by Tom—and his wife Judy. Tom’s hair had gone completely white. His eyes were warm and
brown, and when he smiled, it revealed his gap tooth. His teeth looked healthy and white—surprising to me because he had never used a toothbrush when he and my mom had been together. A ban on toothbrushes and toothpaste were one of his hippie tics. There were others: a deep hatred of Comet cleaning powder, insisting on only using cast iron pans for cooking. Looking back on these quirks, I find them funny, but I realize I have plenty of my own. Like insisting on using a car that runs on fuel made from vegetable oil, or my own ban on using underarm deodorant.
Mom and Tom broke up over one of these lifestyle choices.
When I was in high school, Mom and Tom almost bought a house together in Moscow, Idaho. Tom was my mom’s future for after Riana and I left her for college. But things fell apart, apparently over my mom’s request to get a dishwasher for the new house. Tom felt that dishes should be washed by hand, using Dr. Bronner’s soap—and not cleaned by a soul-robbing machine. They ended up not moving in together, and broke up. Maybe the dishwasher was a symbol for Tom, of living an idealistic life, having unwavering ideals, never selling out. Tom, like my dad, had a code that he wanted to live by. My mom is similarly uncompromising. Of course they were doomed.
Instead of moving in with Tom in Idaho, my mom stayed in her house in Shelton, and Riana and I left the nest my mom had built for us. We took off without looking back or thinking about how she would be affected by our sudden absence. The only clue I had that my mom was heartbroken was a letter she stuffed into the moving boxes that I took with me to college. Her letter to me detailed my strengths and weaknesses—and her hopes for me. It ended by telling me that she found herself crying, for no reason, in the middle of the day. I read the letter
in my dorm room, boxes half-unpacked, and then went out to dinner with my new dorm mate, and didn’t think about it again.
After Mom and Tom broke up, Tom met Judy, a nice Christian lady, and married her. I was scandalized. My mom was resigned, and she told me that people go back to what they knew—Tom had been raised by a religious family. Mom said she was tired of the emotional turmoil of having a boyfriend, anyway. She was fifty years old when they split, and hasn’t dated anyone since.
At Tom and Judy’s house, where I would stay the night before driving to Orofino the next day, I sniffed for the smells I associated with Tom: peppermint Dr. Bronner’s, sandalwood. I looked for batik fabric and African statues. Nothing. As I looked around, I noticed that I felt sad. Seeing Tom pained me. He had been like a rare treasure—a good, gentle man—that my mom had lost. I also noticed that Tom and Judy had a dishwasher.
• • •
I borrowed Tom’s car and drove to Orofino. I crossed the bridge and headed to the IGA. I called Bill. He was riding his bike to work.
“I’m at the IGA,” I told him.
“How’s it going?” he asked.
“I don’t know, I feel sad,” I said.
“It’s OK, dog,” he said. God, I love him.
Later I found myself unpacking my stuff into Phil’s cabin on Lowell’s property. The cabin was shrouded by a glade of pine trees that must have been saplings when the place was built. I loved the angles of cabin, the way the windows were made with salvaged glass. The rocking chair next to the
potbellied woodstove. The front porch with its slanted roof. It looked like a gold-miner’s cabin. Phil, an English professor at the University of Idaho, had told me he had hoped it would be a place where he would get lots of writing done. As I surveyed the cabin, I felt like I was a visitor from the future who had stepped back into history. I didn’t belong, but I did. I had been here before.
Down the road from the cabin, in the big house, Lowell seemed harried but happy. He was unloading wood from a truck to stack up for the winter. Upstairs his two teenaged daughters were making dinner. Dark-haired and giggly, they seemed curious about why I, this younger friend of their dad’s, had come back again. But they were too shy to ask.
“Should we make potatoes too?” Lowell asked when he came upstairs. His daughters and I went out to the garden. It was just starting to fade—a few cabbages, the last of the summer zucchini. Red apples glowed from a tree in the corner of the garden. Lowell sunk his pitchfork into a pile of dirt surrounded with yellow leaves and stems and turned the soil. Yellow and red potatoes popped out of the dark earth. His younger daughter and I scrambled after them, dusted them off, and put them into a bucket. Then we walked through the stand of sweet corn and picked ten ears. Lowell threw some pigweed to the fattening pigs. The girls obviously worshiped their dad.
I wondered what it would have been like if my parents had been happy together on the ranch. I imagined this idyllic life growing up on the land—like Lowell’s girls, I would have gone to Orofino High, raised pigs for 4-H, ridden horses. I got a strange sense of vertigo considering this parallel universe.
After dinner the girls wandered off to study and talk on the phone, and Lowell showed me a photo of the rig he and
his first wife Marcia used to drive down to Arizona. It was a camper that fit on a flatbed truck, like a little cabin.
They looked so young and blond, and free. Lowell sighed. “I don’t like looking at these,” he said.
“Why not?” I asked. I got a thrill looking at old photos from back in the happy hippie days.
“Marcia made this album,” he said, “I don’t like old photos because I don’t like to be reminded about how young I was. It’s evidence of my decline.”
“But you’re in great shape,” I said.
“That’s why I stayed here, on this land, so my body could stay strong,” he said. “But it’s still not as strong as it was before.”
I knew what he was talking about—I hadn’t thought about it before, but I was in my prime right now. My farm work—milking the goats, throwing bales of alfalfa, working the garden—kept me strong and healthy. Something I had taken for granted. I hadn’t thought about the day when everything wasn’t possible, when I would feel weak and tired.
• • •
That night, curled up in front of the potbellied stove in Phil’s cabin, I went over my plan. I had decided, over the last few days, that I wanted to have a few moments inside my dad’s house. If I couldn’t make contact with the man, at least I could examine his den. I especially wanted to read the card I recognized as my own, stuck to his wall. Why did he save that one? I also wanted to look through the closets and unearth some knowledge of him. Even if I didn’t find anything tangible, I wanted to go inside and sit there for a while. To get into his skin.
The next morning I woke up to the sound of Maya’s black
horse thundering past the cabin, snorting. It was cold and drizzly. I made a nest of twigs and newspaper in the stove and lit it. I thought of old friends of mine who I hadn’t seen in a while, and wondered if I would feel the pang of years gone by like Lowell. Then I bundled up and walked to Lowell’s house. We drank coffee, both dreading what we were going to do that day. Lowell went to his divorce hearing. I went to my dad’s cabin.
I drove into town, then turned up Grangemont Road, where my father lived. I felt sick but mesmerized, unable to stop myself from going to his place. I had an instinctual need, almost a thirst to go back to his cabin, to see it without the distraction of him being there.
The forest along the road was dismal and gray in October, and it closed in as I got closer to his place. When I drove up to the gravel driveway, a thin rain began to fall. The house looked bleak and empty. His truck wasn’t there. I was surprised to see there were some piles of firewood left—maybe a stockpile in case Arizona didn’t work out? Or maybe he just hadn’t sold all the wood he had gathered that season, or it wasn’t fully dry and needed to cure for longer. A little gray kitten—one of a whole litter—darted out from under the cabin. In the path to the porch I saw a chipmunk tail, just the fur left, from the kittens’ hunting.
“Dad?” I called and knocked on the door. I tried turning the doorknob, but it wouldn’t budge. In the hollow below, someone was playing music, old hits from the 1950s like The Supremes and Elvis. The music drifted up, which added a strange cinematic soundtrack.
I circled around the side of the house, looking for openings in the windows. At the back door, there were some tossed food scraps, half of a red pepper, bright against the dark soil
of the woods, and some bread that didn’t look moldy. This midden made me think he had left more recently than I had thought. There was a ladder, which I picked up and placed on the side of the back door. I felt wounded, half-crazy. As I climbed the ladder, I heard voices. I froze, clutching the rungs.
“Do you like squash?” a woman’s voice said. “Squash . . . ?” a wavering old man’s voice queried.
“Winter squash. Because we grew some big ones—like twenty-pounders!” the woman bragged. Though they sounded like they were right outside my dad’s cabin, their voices were actually from below, where the music was coming from. I relaxed.
“Oh!” the man chortled, “Isn’t that nice?”
“I’ll. Bring. You. Some. We’re. Sharing. With the Neighbors,” the woman enunciated so he would understand. I stopped listening and went back to figuring out the puzzle of how to get in. There was no way I wasn’t going in, I thought. No way. When I get an idea in my head like this one, I become focused and unrelenting, like a pit bull. I went back around to the front of the cabin and stood at the door.
This whole thing—our relationship—felt like a manhunt. I would make an effort to see him, then give up. I was sick of playing, and I wanted to finally make a breakthrough with him so I could move on. But every time, he had eluded me. Now, I had come all this way, and I wanted to get what I had come for; I didn’t want to be skunked again. I felt a surge of energy and raised up my leg and began kicking. Wood from the door started to buckle and chip. With one last push with my shoulder, the door creaked open, and the two-by-fours holding the door shut fell away.
“Hello?” I called, stepping over the pieces of wood my dad
had used to secure the door. Kittens scattered as I walked up the wobbly interior stairs. Then I was inside. The place smelled musty and rank. A cup of coffee sat on the counter—it had mold growing on the top. Maybe he had been gone longer than I thought.
I noticed I was breathing hard, not just from the effort of breaking in, but from fear. I had a horrible sensation that my dad would drive up, and I would be there, caught. So I worked quickly, starting with the card that I had seen during the last visit. It was green construction paper and had a tree with sparkles hand-drawn on it. It was from about 1994, when I was still in college. It was a full report of my grades from my classes at the University of Washington. “I got a 3.2 in chemistry, 3.6 in English. Pretty good, though I’m wondering if this is just a rat race—what does it all mean?” I had dropped out shortly after, and began my free fall.
After I pinned the card back up on the wall, I moved to the back of the cabin where I opened up all the drawers and cupboards. The newspaper clippings of the wedding photos from the Clearwater Tribune caught my eye again. When I had initially seen these clippings, I assumed Dad knew these people, but now I was almost positive these people were strangers to him. It was as if he had wanted to have some clippings from the past, but he wasn’t organized enough to keep any photos. So he had used these clippings as surrogates.
The file cabinet held all the books that he cared about—
The Sun Also Rises
The Great Gatsby
, and other classics. The cupboards had weird stuff like Seal-a-Meal packets and emergency flares. In the kitchen I found empty bottles of the medication he was taking: atorvastatin, hydrochlorothiazide, and amitriptyline. These felt like clues in a treasure hunt: he
wouldn’t tell me about his health but I could find out what kind of maladies I—and my future children—might suffer from via these medications. I wrote the names of the meds in a notebook so I could research them later.