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3am Non-Fiction





THE IMPORTANCE OF SKY



"When Lacy arrived in Portland, we packed up my room at a boarding house in the Belmont neighborhood of Southeast Portland-a delicate little enclave of Victorian houses, cats on porch railings and good views of the downtown skyline-and I showed her to the places I thought important in the city: Tao of Tea, on Hawthorne Street where we took green tea and mango ice cream, The Habit, a coffeehouse in an old armory, the banks of the Willamette River and other spots where I spent the free hours of my summer, alone. Lacy was delighted with everything I showed her. I'd missed her moon-round face, an exact replica of mine in shape, her droopy mouth, her freckled-dusted skin and her gigantic laugh."

By Ashley Shelby

COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


The skies over Coeur d'Alene are piling up treasures, tall stacks of red clouds and stringy wisps of pink almost-clouds. A multi-layered cake of cumulus and sunlight. Lake Coeur d'Alene is a deep dark pit in the earth, the waters black and cold and straight from the top of the mountains. Down the slope, off the interstate that cuts through the beginnings of the Rockies, the pines grow thick and dark green and the bald spots on the other side of the lake look like wounds.

This is my favorite sanatorium, the resting place in my mind-this image of coolness, a rinsing wind blowing through the open window of my Ford Tempo as I drove over the open lands of Western America with my younger sister Lacy. That spot of land is in an interesting place-a few miles from the dirty urban outskirts of Spokane where the interstate swells to four lanes on each side and the billboards fly by like poker cards in the spokes of a bicycle wheel. Just past the Washington-Idaho border, the terrain becomes steep and what grows on it grows tall and clean. That's where I am when I think of Lacy.

What hurts the most now is that I don't remember a lot of things. The memories seem to float away. You try to hold on to that person's memory, try to hold on to that pillow they held on to, but that smell will go away.

I spent a summer in Portland a few years ago, working at a documentary house where I produced National Parks P.R. films, which masqueraded as documentaries. I worked long hours studying the national parks and writing catchy vignettes about each one-which always seemed to include some long-dead politician sparing a bear's life and declaring the land federally protected-only to have the head producer claim my script treatments as his own when presenting them to the head of the house. When the end of summer approached, I watched the days on my calendar carefully. Lacy was due in Portland the third week of August to accompany me on the long drive back home to Minneapolis. After a few days of sightseeing in Portland, we'd hop in the Tempo and follow the hallowed United States Highway System across the West and into the Midwest.

I'd missed Lacy. She is the middle daughter-all peace and watercolors-and since I'd been away at college, she'd become a nature goddess. But Lacy wasn't one who simply appreciated nature. She seized it, navigated through it, scaled it, and somehow recognized it in ways others didn't seem to be able. She climbed rocks and waterfalls; she led kayak expeditions around the Apostle Islands; she took two week solo canoe trips to the Boundary Waters; she SCUBA dived in Lake Superior. She was a Femme du Nord-a woman of the North-who paddled a canoe from Lake Winnipeg to Hudson Bay when she was fifteen years old. Lacy became someone in these deeds.

Christmas, many years ago. Lacy and I are jumping off the arm of the sofa in the living room. Who can jump the farthest? Who can touch the far wall before she lands? Lacy, five years old, clamors up on the sofa, balances on the sofa and leaps. She crashes into the corner of the wall, and shatters her right arm. "Touched it!" she yells first, before seeing her arm dangling useless from the elbow. Later, Dad painted a Santa Claus face on her cast and Mom took her photograph in front of the fireplace and her Christmas stocking, holding her decorated cast up for the camera. That picture and that cast are now in a box-frame that sits atop the mantle at their house. This is the incarnation of Lacy that I know best.

He was about five ten, and muscular. He was a swimmer. His face was almost square-ish but it came to a point at his chin. He had small, sweet blue eyes. He had nice smile lines. He had a very definite movement. Picture Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. Loping. Wait, don't say loping. Say that he walked confidently but had a sway to his step. Not a cocky-ass sway, but a funny sway. A Shaggy-deadhead sway to his step.

A few days before Lacy arrived, I stopped at AAA in downtown Portland. There, amidst the accordion maps, lined in blue and pink highlighting, I decided that Lacy and I would take a route through Montana and South Dakota. I had a yearning for sweetgrass and so I planned for a stop at Little Bighorn National Monument. I'd been there once before on a family trip. Then, my father bought me a bundle of Dakota sweetgrass that looked like a bouquet of straw and smelled like smoke and maple syrup. I never burned it, like one would. I kept it near my bed and took a deep whiff of it when I felt out of sorts. It calmed me, despite the fact that it grew in soil that contained the graves of slain Dakota Indians and Custer cavalrymen.

When Lacy arrived in Portland, we packed up my room at a boarding house in the Belmont neighborhood of Southeast Portland-a delicate little enclave of Victorian houses, cats on porch railings and good views of the downtown skyline-and I showed her to the places I thought important in the city: Tao of Tea, on Hawthorne Street where we took green tea and mango ice cream, The Habit, a coffeehouse in an old armory, the banks of the Willamette River and other spots where I spent the free hours of my summer, alone. Lacy was delighted with everything I showed her. I'd missed her moon-round face, an exact replica of mine in shape, her droopy mouth, her freckled-dusted skin and her gigantic laugh.

The evening before we left Portland, I drove Lacy down to the Walgreen's near the boarding house for road provisions. When we walked into the store, Lacy spotted a display in the "Seasonal" aisle, and ran to it open armed.

"Look," she yelled. "An 'alley cat!'" Bunched onto one shelf, a pack of stuffed black cats with pink eyelids, red noses and wide, toothy smiles. Each wore a bright yellow ribbon which read: "Dare You to Tease Me: Alley Cat." A red patch on the bottom of a paw demanded that Lacy "Squeeze Me Here" and she did. The animal meowed a long, sweet meow. Then another. Suddenly it began shaking and hissing, screeching and convulsing. Lacy dropped Alley Cat and roared with laughter. She steadied herself by holding on to the shelf opposite and continued laughing deep belly laughs, so loud that the guy at the film desk leaned over the counter and stared at us.

I bought Lacy an Alley Cat.

We were in Grand Marais. He had this dog following him; a black lab. He decided to name it Chuck. He's very caring like that. He'd pick up a dead bird and bury it. So he has Chuck and suddenly the dog takes on his personality. The dog starts running off cliffs into the lake and he tries to get Chuck to jump of higher cliffs. He fashions a leash out of weaved fibers of some sort. At the end of the day, we can't take Chuck. They say their goodbyes, shed their tears in this parking lot that overlooks a little Grand Marais bay. He thinks, somehow, he'll see Chuck again.

We rode out of Portland with my little ivy plant stuck in the cup holder and my ashtray filled with coins. Just outside of Portland, Mount St. Helen's loomed into sight-gloomy and decapitated by her explosion. Sometimes people in Portland would say, "she's not dead", and I believed them. Lacy and I were mostly silent through the descending clouds in the Columbia River Gorge. I watched Lacy gaze at it and gauge the navigability of the wide, flat river basin. She plans more deeds when she looks at rivers. As we drove, Lacy held the Alley Cat in her lap and occasionally pressed his paw and petted him as he meowed placidly. Then she shoved the cat in my face as it shook and shrieked and as I drove. Her laughs filled the car.

Barely over the Washington state line into Idaho, we came to Coeur d'Alene. Heart of Awl. It's here that I'm moved because the wind suddenly carries a chill and smells waterfresh. We rolled the windows down and let all the stale traveler's air mix with the mountain air until it was like water in water. We crossed the Idaho neck in no time and spent our first night somewhere in Montana. Our meals were at truck stops crammed with dirty-faced truckers, all glued to the white phones that graced every booth and every table. Calling cards were left abandoned on empty tables, the residue of estrangement. Lacy and I called Mom from a booth, though it was the novelty we craved, more than our mother's voice.

"I'm eating a Beef Commercial right now," Lacy said with the phone tucked between her ear and shoulder as she forked her meal into her mouth: bread, mashed potatoes, roast beef and gravy served in one lump on a Formica plate. "Seriously, a beef commercial!"

On the road, the conversations we never had time for, or never could have what with geography being what it was for girls in college, filled many highway hours. Here's my theory on why Mom doesn't like me, I said. Here's my theory on why Mom is afraid of you, she said. What does the silence of backwoods sound like? How old were you when you lost it? Sometimes, not very often, I throw up after I eat. I think you live your life in tribute to Dad. Mom thinks I'm a lesbian. Don't worry, she thinks I am too. You're the ultimate negotiator; you should be in the UN. I just know everyone's buttons and only push the good ones. Life is easier that way.

One night, some friends and I decided to go skinny-dipping at Bryant Lake. He volunteers to drive his was VW Van. He doesn't want to park in the parking lot-so he decides to drive down the footpath. He kind of swerves around, tears up some sod, goes on this cement footpath. We're driving down in this big van that's kind of tinkering along. When we get to the bottom, he sees this grassy hill. "We should try to go up it!" he says. We look at each other and say: certain death! He tries to drive his van up this really steep hill. He gets 3 feet up the hill, bashes the front of his car in the front of the hills, tears up his headlights. He totally crunches his van into the side of the hill.

Then suddenly there it was, lying before us, huge. Wild, dusty frontier land, still a true frontier, a frontier yet. On either side of the highway, the grass looked burnt: seemingly dead but growing hardy and tough. We took the turn off I-90 to Little Bighorn, and also Little Bighorn Casino (if Custer'd been a gambling manů) This was a crispy landscape, finally flat after our slow climbs in Idaho and Western Montana. The radio waves were vastly devoid of sound (still in Montana, the loneliest stretch of highway is here, with no music from the radio for hundreds of miles). The soundtrack of Montana highways is white noise, radio snow, the sound of many thoughts, the sound of no thoughts.

Little Bighorn National Monument was crowded and we realized, as soon as we pulled in, that we didn't want to be there. Busloads of gamblers, blinking in the bright sunlight, lumbered toward the soldiers' mass grave, which was a few hundred yards from the parking lot. It was a sad monument, one that we'd seen before with our parents. It seemed the protocol was to study the granite monument that was etched with soldiers' names along with a brief recap of the Battle of Little Bighorn, then look past it onto the dry, undulating fields of plains grasses and imagine and mourn. Lacy and I did this, then headed to the gift shop. There was no sweetgrass for sale.

We stopped in Chamberlain, South Dakota for breakfast. We liked it because it was a river town. We bought a few postcards and sent one to our friends back at the filling station in Portland who had checked out my rusty brakes for free just before we left.

We finally got into Minnesota and by that time, Lacy's revelry was drying up. We had exhausted all topics of conversation and even the Alley Cat wasn't good for a laugh anymore. We stopped in Austin, Minnesota for gas. As I filled the tank, Lacy went inside, she said, to go to the bathroom. Ten minutes later, she came back out and we jumped back in the car for the last stretch.

I didn't want you to know that I was calling my friend Jenny because I thought you would think that I was rushing the trip to be over. So I called Jenny at the gas station. She was silent through the whole thing, no hello, no nothing. Her voice was stuck in her throat and it was really quiet. I could feel the pain in her voice, I knew something was wrong. The first word she said was "Lacy". I stopped and said "Yeah, what?" She said: "Something horrible has happened. Lloyd's dead."

I was goofing around on the road, probably doing something unsafe. I can't remember what exactly it was that made Lacy nervous but I snapped back at her to mind her own business and stop bugging me as I drove. She protested weakly once more then fell back against the seat and looked out the window. I didn't give it a second thought. Soon we were on the outskirts of Minneapolis, its skyline rising like towers of stars, and Lacy had again pulled out Alley Cat and shoved it in my face. We pulled into our driveway and before I could turn the car off, our mother ran out of the house. I wondered why she was running for I knew it couldn't be for me. She must have really missed Lacy. But that wasn't what was unusual-people tended to miss Lacy. It was the look on my mother's face that startled me. I knew immediately that something had happened.

I wanted to tell you. I didn't want Mom to make a scene. But I needed to breathe. I didn't want Mom to tell you. I didn't want to tell you in that car ride-because I wasn't ready. I wanted to tell you, and Mom took that away from me. So that's what makes me angry.

"Lacy, I am so sorry," my mother said as we all stood on the driveway. Lacy looked at me for a moment then at our mother. I wasn't sure what Mom was sorry about. Lacy just grabbed her bags. I demanded to know what happened. I demanded again when no one answered. Mom looked at Lacy and said: "Lacy's friend Lloyd was killed in a car crash." Something almost imperceptible changed in Lacy's face; it was like a wick just burnt out. She didn't say a word, only turned and walked into the house with her bags.

None of us wanted to go into the funeral home. Inside lay the body of our young brilliant friend in a casket. Once there I burst into tears. Lloyd didn't have a choice whether or not he died. There are few things that have helped me through the pain. I wasn't expecting someone like me to die. When Jenny told me, I made a decision right there and then that I believed in God. God wanted him. Bad. I didn't have a belief before that. I didn't have any facts. This was the first evidence I felt that there was God. Sounds silly, doesn't it?

In the five months following Lloyd's death, two of Lacy's friends committed suicide. Around that time she decided to spend a semester in New Zealand. It seemed like an odd choice to me-Lacy seemed like a backwoods, pine tree kind of girl. New Zealand was on the other side of the world. Maybe that was the point. She spent much of her time working as an outdoors instructor at a school for boys, on the North Island of New Zealand. They were exuberant, friendly kids who were eager to learn from Lacy how to climb rock formations and belay their partners. Lacy found herself surrounded by fourteen-year-old Lloyds.

I was able to give each of them something of Lloyd. It was me trying to come to this understanding that yes, young people will die. Yes, people will not finish their lives. But what do I think of his death? He was here for all he needed to be here for. Because he left us with so much.

I told my father a version of the trip Lacy and I took when he was visiting me in New York. I chose not to mention Lloyd's death. My father knew. It was there, silent in the narrative, part of family history. My father listened carefully when I told him about my failure to find sweetgrass and two days later he handed me two green braids of plains sweetgrass from the Museum of Natural History. I freed one from its plastic sheath and brought it to my nose. Thick and sweet-a rare grass with a scent that stays with it forever. My father told me to dampen the grass rather than burn it.

When the grass was smoked in a peace pipe, Lakota Indians said prayers into the fragrant smoke, prayers that would rise and scatter on the wind, light on the arcs of breezes that brought them to the great sky, the Great Spirit. And when Lacy and I passed that big red Idaho sky in Coeur d'Alene, Lloyd was alive. I wonder, sometimes, what patch of land we were looking at when Lloyd was killed on that Minnesota highway, in that car, on that night. In Lakota belief, a human being is a container for the elements of the soul. Niya is the breath; the animator of the body. Nagi is our ghost-alive in us as we are alive. During the Vietnam War, Lakota grandmothers sometimes told their grandsons in the service that they had sent their nagi to Vietnam to comfort them. Nagila is the spirit of movement and it is this little ghost that returns to the eternal source of movement after the container dies. The eternal source of movement: Takushka shka, the blue of the sky.

So when I think of the western sky that Lacy and I traveled under, that bluest expanse of firmament embroidered with red clouds, I think of it as a destination. That nagila, a young man whom I never knew but whom Lacy loved, has returned to the Takushka shka. This thought-this belief-comforts Lacy because it keeps him present. And because when someone who is so young is suddenly dead, we look to something larger than our thoughts for succor. I believe that Lacy's faith that all of this makes some kind of sense sustained her through the death of her friend. A confidence that, in Blake's words, everything that lives is holy. Addendum: Everything that leaves is also holy. I know she misses him.




ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ashley Shelby recently received an MFA from Columbia University's School of the Arts. Her short stories and essays have appeared most recently in Carve, Watchword Literary Magazine, Mr. Beller's Neighborhood, Small Spiral Notebook and Transit (U.K.) She has a short story forthcoming in Spire Magazine and an essay in Post Road this fall. She grew up in Minneapolis and lives in New York.





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