Some places call us back. This past summer, my daughter and I returned to Canton, New York, where we lived five years ago, approximately twenty miles south of the Canadian border. It was her choice—her favorite of all the places we’ve lived. And while she deserved to go where she wanted after our devastating year and a half, I worried how we would feel when we saw the house again, and how I might experience those spots I now associate with absence, with loss. But I knew we needed to get away before another year began, a year neither one of us was ready to face.
Years come and go, regardless. This much we had learned quickly.
We flew from Dallas to Syracuse and drove the hours north through memory—those two lanes bordered by trees—a green tunnel, a secret path, a shadow. After thirty miles on I-81, I pointed out the Pulaski exit and pulled into the parking lot of the motel we had stayed in five years ago. It had been our last stop on a cross-country move from Oklahoma to New York, during which we spent nights in large hotels in Indiana, Ohio, and Buffalo—but up here the motels spread rather than rise. They are quaint and quiet, small, with one car parked in front of a door over here, another over there. We were not here to stay, only to revisit.
It was early August 2013 when I checked us into the one-story motel in Pulaski, a bell on the counter in the lobby (ring once!). We had been living in Oklahoma for four years, the longest we had lived anywhere. I was trading one visiting professor position for another, but instead of teaching four sections of composition at a state university, I would be teaching only three classes each semester, and all of them creative writing workshops at a private liberal arts institution.
I remember how my parents, having both lived in Texas their whole lives, feared they’d never see us again when I told them where we were moving.
Before checkout the next afternoon, my daughter and I swam in the pool out front, the one with a floor of tiny tiles, a bright-blue mosaic. I knew I wasn’t ready to get back on the road and drive us to our new life. I wanted to linger, to stare into the sunny sky, to stay between, so when my daughter noticed a pizza place across the highway before jumping into the water, I pulled a T-shirt over my suit and headed across the parking lot toward the lobby. I rang the bell. Paid for another night.
The afternoon we returned to Pulaski was cloudy, the pool covered with a dusty green tarp. My daughter, now sixteen, stepped out of the rental car to take a photo of the motel sign and its marquee (FISHERMEN WELCOME). Before pulling away, we both looked back to see the room where we slept in the Red Carpet Inn (the motel only beiges and browns), and I remembered a laminated list on top of the TV offering instructions for cleaning the fish visitors caught in the Salmon River, the river we drove over on the way out of town, the rumble of the white-rapid rocks beyond the bridge reminding us how much we missed living among rivers.
I have lived here and there, all over, really, and there are some cities I’d rather leave in the rearview mirror, but after enough time, the lens of memory loses focus on some things, fixes on others.
I once visited a good friend in Champaign, Illinois. He and I walked around the university campus and the city, turned a corner toward a thrift store, and came upon a rickety, faded wooden staircase (only five steps) in the middle of an abandoned field. He had named it the Staircase to Nowhere. Not long after my visit, he moved to Virginia. Is the staircase still there? Are we, somehow? Surely.
Sometimes a direction calls us from the distance. For me, it’s always been west. I imagine getting on I-20 in Dallas and driving 229 miles before hitting 84, the two lanes that veer northwest just after the small town of Sweetwater for another 120 or so. I imagine pushing the pedal all the way down that flat road, the horizon a razor, the slow pump of oil jacks dotting the dusty landscape.
I’m thinking of the corner of Toledo and Sixty-Third in Lubbock, Texas, the house where I lived from the ages of six to eight, when I would wander the sidewalks or take off on my Bicentennial Huffy (Star Spangler).
Even then, I carried a stillness.
I can see our orange VW bug in the drive, can watch my father and me race Popsicle sticks in the gutter after every storm. Or I can stand in the backyard and call my mom to come out and see the mud pies I made on top of the doghouse using her tin pie plates.
Would the bur oak still stand, full of green, across the street? Would the sidewalk—the one where my black dog, Skeeter, let me rest my head on her back while I stared through the aperture in the leaves—have shrunk? Would it come back to me, what I told her on those afternoons? Would missing my parents be more acute on that corner? Would it feel like a rush of rainwater after a sudden downpour, a fast-moving river against a curb of grief?
I have too many questions. Here’s another:
Do we ever go anywhere but alone? At the end of each day during our trip in Canton, my daughter and I sat on the balcony of our hotel room to compare the photographs we had taken throughout the day. I wasn’t surprised that our views of the same landmarks shifted, angles altered, proof that we remembered each rock outcropping, each road, even our old house in different ways. Our images, our memories separate, private.
One night out there in the dark, I asked her what she thought the most obvious quality of my mother’s had been. She paused for a long time before answering, “I think we knew two different women.”
Why borrow a view from her that isn’t mine?
And why project my own portrait, one she can’t possibly recognize?
No one else could know what I saw on that trip, when I stood in front of a closed restaurant, or on the bridge overlooking the Grasse River, or in the backyard looking toward the duplex next door. My daughter, I knew, had her own places she needed to revisit in that town. But those are not mine to tell.
Thirty miles after leaving Pulaski, I turned onto Route 11 to an expanse of bending fields, Amish farms, vegetable stands, silos, small (population two thousand) villages, and the Oswegatchie River. When I saw the city-limits sign for Philadelphia, New York, I knew it was coming up on the left and told my daughter to look out for a red-and-white gas station, a corner convenience store I remembered having a pay phone on the wall near the entrance and red booths along the window. I parked the rental and followed my daughter into the store, and while she went to the back for a grape soda, I took photographs of the pay phone and the booths.
There’s a scene in the memoir I published in 2015 of me calling a man from that pay phone, then sitting in one of those booths, watching the traffic and the customers come and go for a long time. A line something like: “I wasn’t going anywhere.” The man was my daughter’s father, someone I had not seen or heard from since he left the summer she was four months old. That evening, I emailed the photos of the pay phone and the red booths to a friend. She wrote back: “Evidence of time travel.”
So much of writing involves then, after, when.
Once, when I was living in Stillwater, Oklahoma, an old boyfriend from grad school called to say he was coming through town on his way to a business trip. Could I meet him for a drink? So we sat close on bar stools and grazed legs, our hands always somewhere on a forearm or a knee, and he told me he was getting married in a month, and his fiancée forbade (he used that word) me from coming to the wedding. Hours later, when he dropped me off at my apartment, we got out of his car and met in front of it, kissing and whispering for a long time in the sad glare of the headlights.
I wonder who watched us from a window or a balcony that night, who saw me stranded in the middle of the lot after he drove away, nodding no, no, no.
Coming into Canton, we drove slowly past the line of storefronts—Nature’s Storehouse, the art gallery, law offices, two pizza places next to each other, and Look, there’s where the Blackbird Café used to be!—before rolling past the square. I drove as slowly as traffic would allow, in part to let our memories adjust their focus with what we saw outside the car windows, but also in part to hesitate, to delay those memories waiting a few blocks down the road. We crossed the railroad tracks and drove through the rows of two-story clapboard houses on either side until we could see it up on the left. The house we lived in for two years.
My daughter had been ten, eleven then, still a little girl with a blonde bob and neon clothes and the same always-alert face. The house was cream with a red door and a large tree out front. The tire swing some of my students had put up for her back then was gone. The three large boulders lining the gravel drive, gone. And the garage door raised about an inch, as if it wouldn’t close all the way.
Returns can betray our memory and reveal something new, a different image, a disappointment, a recital of disappearances.
When we lived there, a shaggy-haired man in a red shirt, jeans, and flat sneakers spent his days walking up and down the sidewalks of Main Street, Route 11. Sometimes I’d pass him smoking on the bench outside the liquor store, or see him crossing the street at the square, or shuffling in the direction of the university, and once, perched on one of the boulders in our yard.
Back then, I had a colleague with an office next door in the English building and a duplex next door to me on Main Street. We took turns crossing the yard to each other’s places, spent hours talking about writers in our field and each other’s work, or we’d meet at the bar at the hotel or at a restaurant called the Club, just off the square.
Back then, on the day I moved out of my third-floor office, I etched a secret message for my favorite students—the ones who would be beginning their senior year—on the bottom of my office door.
After all my wanderings and the eleven states my daughter and I have moved into and out of, we now live in an apartment about an hour from the Dallas suburb where I spent most of my childhood.
The devastating past year and a half began with my father’s unexpected death in January. Three months later, my mother was diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer and told she had six to twelve months to live. She made it eleven, and one early April morning, my daughter and I each held one of her hands as she left us. Now my daughter and I make the drive back to my parents’ house every other week or so to take care of things, to feel close to them. I stand at the butcher-block kitchen counter, the one I leaned over to talk to my mother while she cooked. Or I stand in the middle of the living room, where I stood my ground as my father yelled at me, more than once, for missing curfew, for being wild, for being on the phone after my mother told me to get off. Or I stand in the door frame of their bedroom, where I whispered I’m home at eleven thirty on weekend nights in high school. Or I stand in the pool, still doing flips and handstands in my late forties, wishing Mom and Dad would come out the patio door to squint in the sun and clap as my daughter dives off the board.
That man who kissed me in the apartment lot in the headlights, the one who married, the one who continued to call on every birthday and holiday, the one who shared my “we have all the time in the world” thinking? He died on a bike trail three years later in Houston.
I always imagine making the trip to that trail, choosing a tree, wondering whether it’s this curve or that one over there.
Someone makes a choice, so we say nothing.
Then we don’t pick up the phone that last time, ring after ring.
We live with a spot on a bike trail we’ve never seen. We see it anyway. Every day.
I say we. What I mean: a lifelong apology for I.
In Canton, the disappearances grew sharper, severe. Reality grew hazy. I never saw the man in the red shirt, even though I searched for him. And when I climbed the three flights of stairs to my office and got on the floor to take a photo of the message, it was gone. And my dear friend. He had passed the August before in a hospital in Ohio at the age of forty-one.
But maybe it was my memory that had become hazy, for when I stood in the yard of our old house, I had planned to take a photo of the field behind the duplex. It was the scene of my friend’s author photo, a stark gray-and-white portrait, his head bent in contemplation, his coat long and black, the North Country snow falling silver across the craggy branches around him. I thought My friend once stood there, and I turned away. To take a photograph, to even look for too long at the space felt like a betrayal, an invasion, a theft.
I’m thinking of those places where thousands, millions have been before, and how we all stand with our own stories, secrets, private histories like stones in a belfry, silent without the bell—
Before paintings in museums. On a star along the Hollywood Walk of Fame. A grassy knoll. The top of the Empire State Building. Under the Bean in Chicago’s Millennium Park. The North Rim of the Grand Canyon. In the middle of a bridge on the San Antonio River Walk. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In front of the Hemingway house (take your pick which one). On a shore between the sand and the sea. Signing the brick wall outside Graceland. Under a state’s welcome sign on the highway. On a Seattle corner featured in our favorite sitcom. Silent around a memorial fountain in New York City.
Every September or October, my father took me to the State Fair of Texas in Dallas, and, later, he took me and my daughter. He always followed the same route, from the entrance to Big Tex, to Fletcher’s Corn Dogs, then onto the automobile building and the food building, on and on, always leaving with a bag of malt balls and handing some eager kid the handful of tickets we didn’t use on our way to the exit.
When my daughter and I returned last year without him, we followed the route we had memorized, and we stopped in front of Big Tex and took a selfie. How could any of those groups of friends, those families, those kids struggling to be free from their strollers imagine, on such a bright autumn afternoon, that our photo was a tradition turned mourning? That the shutter closed on an ache?
Last year, over two million people passed through the gates of the Texas State Fair, an average of 100,000 a day, but for my daughter and me, we felt only an absence. We held hands almost the entire two-hour stay, squeezing when we came to a spot—in front of a Skee-Ball lane, in the ice cream sample line, or stepping into a car at the haunted house ride—where he once stood.
I haven’t mentioned how my daughter and I almost died in that cream house with the red door.
Just as we assumed it would be in mid-July, the house was vacant, a university-owned property waiting for the next professor who would, most likely, move in in August. Standing in the yard for the first time in five years, I saw us leave out the front door on a late October afternoon and stumble down the three front steps and weave across the thick layer of leaves. I saw myself on the sidewalk, struggling to stand, waving down cars while my daughter vomited into the grass. I saw a police officer standing by my bed in the ER asking whether we had been in the car, in the garage. Days later, I listened to a firefighter explain that a split chimney in the basement created carbon monoxide levels over 300 p.p.m. on the third floor (where my daughter and her friend played the day before), along with 250 p.p.m. in the main level of the house (where the heater ran all night and well beyond noon, where I fainted in the kitchen, where my daughter sweated in a deep sleep). At sustained levels of carbon monoxide concentrations above 150, disorientation, unconsciousness, and death are possible. Carbon monoxide had been churning through the house for over a month from a split chimney in the basement.
After a few silent moments, we moved to the backyard. My daughter discovered the door open and hopped over the three steps to the breezeway, ignoring my protests that we were trespassing. Determined, she went to the door to the kitchen, the one with the window we broke one freezing night when we were locked out. She snapped photo after photo, and when I asked from the yard whether it looked the same, she shook her head no. What, I wondered, had it looked like to her back then?
Later that night on our hotel balcony, she showed me her photos of the kitchen, the stove moved to a different wall, the hallway, one shot of the living room. I couldn’t look at them long. While I did see moments of us living there—our red couch, the column in the kitchen where I marked her height, the door to her bedroom, the black-framed mirror in the bathroom, and the kitchen table where I wrote every morning—I also saw us almost dying, two huddled figures barely moving through that living room on our way out.
A few years ago in New Mexico, we lived in the oldest adobe house on the west side, which, we were often told, was a part of town visited only on a dare, dangerous. We didn’t have to be told: the alley running beyond us was a trail of homeless wanderers searching our trash for bottles, or patients from the mental hospital gesticulating and shouting at passing cars, or kids ditching school on their way to the drug house on the corner, and once, screaming, years-of-hurt screaming. Four in the morning. I pulled the curtains back from the window in my room to see the woman from next door pacing the alley under the dim streetlight. This after months of no movement at her house—locked doors, closed windows, as though she’d moved out or died, OD’d. But that night, I watched her dark hair dripping down her dingy hoodie, her jagged fingernails dangling a cigarette, her shoulders two knots cinched tight. Screaming. I go back to this window again and again in my mind and shudder. What had hold of her, and why did I stand there for so long, witnessing something I’d rather not know?
Back home in Texas, my car, the same one I was driving when we lived in Canton, still has my blue-and-white faculty-parking sticker in the left corner, above the registration. In the glove box, I keep the garage door opener from the house there because I forgot to leave it in the mailbox along with the keys. My faculty parking expired in August 2016, but we left at the end of June 2013, while my friend waved from his front yard until we could no longer see him in our rearview mirrors.
We took the garage door opener on the trip, and as we approached the gravel drive that first day, we stopped on the sidewalk, counted to three, and I pushed the button. Nothing.
With each special occasion—first day of school, a dance, an award ceremony—I’ve always taken a picture of my daughter to send my mother. We use the same spot outside our apartment, a small ledge at the top of the steps leading to the courtyard, a nice backdrop, a variegated stone wall, a tree. Toward the end of school this past year, when the first special occasion arrived weeks after her grandmother passed, I offered to follow my daughter out to take her picture. After a quiet “No, thanks,” she made her way to the car, and I understood. She would never stand in that spot again.
In Canton, while my daughter spent time at a friend’s she had not seen in years, I went back to the places that were my own—a running trail along Riverside Drive, the aisles of the bookstore on campus, the café in the student union where I’d get my favorite tea each morning before teaching. Then I drove to the Club, but it had closed, for good (the week before, I later learned). A FOR SALE sign out front. I half-heartedly took a few photos, because the one I planned to take was of the oak bar inside, the stools where my colleague, my neighbor, my friend, and I sat at least once a week, taking turns buying pints. I drove back to the hotel. At the bar, I ordered sauvignon blanc, honoring a night years before when he came over to the house, and I drank too much chardonnay. The next morning, I left an apology note propped against his screen door, admitting that chardonnay sometimes took me down dark roads. He emailed a reply within the hour: “That’s why I drink sauvignon blanc.”
I took a picture of our table and later converted it to black and white: the curved chair where I sat alone, lipstick imprint on my glass, the wine gleaming in the afternoon light from the window.
On our last day, we had one final place to go: the rock embankment along the Grasse River, where my daughter and I used to stop on our walks through the wooded trail behind campus. She quickly wandered off to put her feet into the water and take photos, my favorite of a tiny frog in the water between two rocks.
At every body of water, she and I have always thrown rocks, one for ourselves, and one for friends, making a wish for each one. We couldn’t find the smaller stones that had once been along the embankment, so we climbed the path to the bridge above and gathered them along the way.
In the middle of the bridge, I set down several rocks on the railing, and I began.
For the friend in Prague whose latest collection of short stories had just come out. Plunk.
For the friend back home who recently upended her life to dare a new one. Plunk.
For my daughter. Plunk.
For myself. Plunk.
For a better year. Plunk.
Throwing rocks has always been a solitary ceremony, even though we stand side by side. We always keep their meanings to ourselves. But this time, with three more rocks to throw, I announced each one:
My daughter stopped with each break of my voice.
The last afternoon, before heading back to the airport in Syracuse, I drove past the house to see a work truck and a man unloading paint cans into the garage, another securing the railings of the porch. It was unsettling, seeing someone else in the drive, but I was glad to see the house being taken care of. It looked exactly the way it had when we lived there, even the curtains I put up in the breezeway window to match the front door still hung on the sagging rod.
I filled up at the gas station on the corner and returned to the hotel, where we took our time packing and double-checking before we reluctantly walked out, dragging our suitcases behind. Heading east on Route 11, we passed the house one more time, the workers gone.
My daughter pointed out the new 89, the address to the right of the garage. The workers must have placed it before they left.
“Sweet house,” my daughter said, and I agreed, felt the lens of memory lose focus and adjust, to fix on—
the time the heat went out and we cuddled in sleeping bags to watch Thirteen Going On Thirty on my laptop, the mornings I watched her climb the steps of the school bus before I settled at the kitchen table to write, the way we had cheese pizzas from Sergi’s delivered so often that the boxes stacked up in our breezeway, the way we sat outside and read in our white Adirondack chairs on the porch, the months we worked on that thousand-piece puzzle of the New Yorker cover only to discover it had one missing piece. We never found it.
Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir and Loaded: Women and Addiction. Her writing has been recognized by The Best American Essays and appeared in journals such as AGNI, Brevity, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, Longreads, The Normal School, The Rumpus, and Slice Magazine.