—for Georgia Pearle, on her birthday
Like many of our days together, that day—12.21.19, the winter solstice in the 44th parallel, the calendared day shortest and bleakest—did not go according to plan.
Our day before was busy, the last of the event center holiday rush. We’d cleaned all day with the kids upstairs, put away a wedding in the ballroom and vacuumed and mopped, then surprised the kids with their Christmas presents—new cell phones, not hand-me-downs—and took off in the pickup for Idaho Falls to celebrate early Xmas at the Olive Garden. We’d been talking about the Olive Garden for a whole week, at least, and all had that carby breadstick crave, and I think you had a gift card. We couldn’t lose. Took us a while to get in with the wait, which I planned on, and used to call Verizon and activate the two phones, and we were finally buzzed in and in short notice all four of us feasted with the starved abandon and acceptance that only family members around a table condone. We got full and tired and drove back to home, to the basement of the Loft, our beaver dam, our cellar, and we lethargically wrapped the rest of the kids’ presents and then did another gift exchange, the small trinkets of our meager Christmas after the cell phones. But they were elated, and we’d once again pulled it off, and now all we had to do was follow the plan: go to bed, get up at 5:30 am Saturday, 12.21.2019, get the dogs to the kennel, then load up and get on the interstate south to Utah and be at my sister Malorie’s house by 10:00 am for breakfast sandwiches, and also enjoying our first weekend away from Idaho since June, some 27 weeks.
At sunrise 12.21—7:58 am—we were still zonked out from the noodles and booze. I got up at six and fed the beasts to shut them up, then got back to bed and warmed up next to you, in our squeaky bed, in our basement bedroom, under the quilt Opal had licked at least three big holes in. Which, my bad, because Betsy was scheduled for an x-ray on her leg at the vet, before getting kenneled, and the x-ray technician would only be there until seven, so I had to get there early, which I said I would, but didn’t. Missed that. When I finally did wake up around 8:45 am, I sat up and called the vet still mostly asleep, walked down the hallway in my shorts, and the woman told me the x-ray technician had gone home, so I said I’d be there post-haste with the dogs to kennel before they actually locked the doors for holiday hours. I had until noon. I was already late, so no need to hurry. I set down my phone on the nightstand and decided to take off all my clothes and get back into bed with you and wake you up the right way. We were late already, so might as well start it off right.
I know I promised to keep you warm here, but I underestimated how cold it really was, how much energy it’d take. So it was after nine before I left you naked and zapped and overheated in bed. I caught my breath while dressing then went out the door, told you I loved you and you should think about packing, and went to the kitchen and drank coffee and searched the office for the dog vaccination records, which the kennel needed.
The only other stirrings in the house, other than the dogs, was Azrael, who was dressed, packed, fully awake, on her phone, sitting in the purple kitchen couch, wearing her fingerless leather gloves and scowling my way. I had not forgotten, but again realized, that today, Azrael turned 13. It was her birthday. I said good morning; Azrael made claw-hands and hissed. I got it, no problem, I’d lived through my five sisters’ teenage years, been married twice, and of course, been living with you, the mother and creator of Azrael, for over three years now. I’m a black belt in mood management. Azrael, when she is good, is so good, but oh, when she is tormented, she is a hurricane. Also like her mother that way. I have always been a dirt devil, you know that, and am at my best spinning with other natural forces. I told Azrael happy birthday and invited her to come drop the dogs off with me, saying I could use her help. She relented back to humanoid quickly and became her pleasant self and helped me snap on the leashes, her fantasy purple hair across one eye, chaotic good at rest, leading Betsy the old labrador.
I had Opal, our crazy goat-weasel collie. 12.21.19 would be our first day without this pup on our bed at our feet. That felt a way for me, especially after losing Roxie the cat, who was in my life 13 years until this one, 2019, and a sliver of me didn’t want to kennel the dogs at all. What if they got sick and died, or ran off? What number of Idaho farm dog was Opal for me—9? 10? Doomed like the rest, I convinced myself.
I had the pickup warmed and idling because I started it with the app on my phone. I know I tell you that every time but let me remind you we live in utterly unprecedented times. The phones, the apps, the maps, the networks—how did we ever live so disconnected and fractured before? So remote? There was snow everywhere. We walked down the sidewalk to my white pickup, chuffing clean exhaust and melting all the window ice and warming up the front seats for us like a good robot. These miracles of human ingenuity make this cruel world inhabitable.
Me and Azrael, we summoned the dogs out of the snow and into the backseat. Was she wearing her green spiky cosplay wig? I can’t recall. I know she wore a zip-up hoodie that had most recently belonged to me. I got behind the wheel, Azael buckled up, and I backed out into the parking lot and turned around to face the highway. More chilly winds from the north.
We got driving down the slow road to town, the farmhouse chimneys puffing gray smoke, and across the road black-blue ice in patches and big sheets, the mountains east and west visible and frigid and looming. I asked Azrael how it felt to be thirteen, told her I couldn’t remember that long ago for me anymore, even though I could.
She responded: “Age isn’t what changes you, not so much. What changes you is growth and experience.” I was floored, impressed, really, you’ve raised an incredible young person. I drove one-handed and fished out from the console a piece of paper and a carpenter’s pencil, and had her write down her words for me. What a gift, worth putting up on the fridge. She scrawled it down and handed it back.
I flipped over the paper and saw she’d written her quote on the back of one of the parking lot warnings I leave on vehicles left on the property: Hi! You’ve left your vehicle here illegally and without permission! This is a private parking lot for customers only! If this happens again, you’ll be towed, as posted! If you have any questions or concerns you can call! In the future, please be respectful of our private property and business endeavours! Thanks, The Management.
Seems like we’re a cellar-full of smart asses in our house.
So me and Azrael dropped off the dogs to the kennel, which, by the end, we were all fine and went our separate ways. I realized I wasn’t too worried. Our mutts were survivors, just like us, stubborn stoic salty water dogs, and I realized I was pretty sure I’d see them again—tomorrow, when I was supposed to pick them up. Nonetheless, in the truck, their absence bummed me out. To cheer up, I drove to the Rigby Broulims so Azrael could pick out some healthy road food for the drive, something to offset the Olive Garden family-style state of regret we were all digesting. Azrael handed me fresh sushi from the deli, and sashimi, and a bag of tangelos, and I added granola bars, jerky, peanuts, bottles of water. Ran me over fifty bucks, which didn’t bother me a bit. We had a solstice christmas birthday to fete, an entrance into teenagerhood to boot, and miles to roadtrip before we crashed and then sent the kids to Alabama. We’d need all the hearty stock we could get.
We paid and drove home and got inside the house and all of the sudden I really had to go. I hadn’t been feeling a hundred percent. None of us had since the Olive Garden. All of the bathrooms in the basement house were ocupado, apparently we all had the same idea. I went upstairs, crossed through our ballroom, entered our bride’s room, and took the private bride’s throne to evacuate and scroll. It had been a long dogged six months of event and farm labor, and my best version of a vacation was to drive four hours to my sister’s house and have family dinner there. Many days I wished I could do better than this, knowing I never could.
When I came back downstairs, you were ready and had your knitting bag, maybe the one I gave you an Xmas in the past, needled-up, yarn-locked, tea in your travel coffee mug. Phyrex, the seventeen year old, cuddled their cat Mordecai and set out food for the long solo night. Then Phyrex got their leftover chicken alfredo out of the fridge to bring on the road in case they got hungry for something other than sushi. This offended my sensibilities, and I argued against it but ultimately relented. Phyrex was a debate pro, and often, like with their mother, I found it wiser and quicker to negotiate for less. Phyrex said they’d take extra care and not spill. Ready finally, we all wheeled our gear out to your rig, my mother’s golden Jeep that she lent us to drive while she was on her mission, and let me say it weirdly suits you. Reminds me of that old POS Jeep we started hanging out over, down in the Texas swamp, that one I tried to fix and did more harm than help, but also got sweaty greasy sexy just for you.
It was after noon before we were all in the Jeep, about to head south. I texted my sister to confirm we’d be there in four hours. I also apologized for having slept in. She said no worries, my easiest-going sister, unless you count taxes and recipes and card games. I said a prayer in my heart and belted up and got us out on the winter roads. Azrael and Phyrex ate their sushi trays and so did you, maybe, but then Phyrex started telling us about the Chapo podcast guys, which, he’d gifted me their book for Christmas and I promised to read it but hadn’t yet, and how they did a thing about dank nuggs. Or maybe it was a YouTube taste test series? This happened maybe fifteen minutes down the road, on the south side of Idaho Falls, Phyrex telling jokes about dank nuggs, meaning chicken nuggets, but making us laugh on the PG-13 level too, and he was really riffing about dank nuggs on the train and dank nuggs with honey and suddenly, as happens often in Idaho, we all wanted fries. Who cared? It was Xmas, and we’d all put on a bit of potato weight in six months of Idaho living. Starchy, well-insulated, even skinny svelte stubbled Phyrex had some cushion. I thought we all still looked pretty damn good in our respective forms and layers, no matter what we ate. I exited down on that truck-stop exit with the Love’s and the built-in McDonalds, and we all went in and used the bathroom again. We moved okay as a herd, better than most, at least none of us so far have been eaten by wild lions or packs of mad dogs. I think we had to buy you tissues and hand-sanitizer? Maybe this was the beginning of your month-long quitters flu? I remember we were both still on the biggest nicotine patches, 21mg, taping them to our shoulders every day, promising this was the last of the last of the last. Phyrex was wearing their gaudy purple NYU hoodie, black slacks, black combat boots, also hair in their eyes, natural blonde, also moody and clever, proud and cocky as they were recently accepted to NYU’s 2020 Freshman Class, the Tisch School of Game Design. Hell yes I’d been bragging on them for a while.
A few locals rubbernecked Phyrex’s purple college hoodie. I told Phyrex to tell them it stood for North Brigham Young University, and they’d get confused respect. Phyrex rolled their eyes, which was what I’d been going for the whole time. Haven’t we all in this family just lucked out since we got together, none of us related or legally bound, making the most of the best? Wasn’t this what the best was supposed to feel like, what we’d kept looking for? We strutted through the store to the McDonalds counter and ordered. Burgers and fries and dozens of dank nuggs, to go. We stepped out of the way, near the condiment bar, and I waved you over and told you that the ketchup dispenser was hand sanitizer, and you could wash your hands there. That made the kids laugh, nice work me. I had done it the week before too at the movie theater, we saw Knives Out and all liked it to varying degrees, and before we went in I tried to get you to wash your hands in the popcorn butter dispenser.
We got in the Jeep, distributed food, and got on the road again, eating and speeding across the volcanic snowy desert stretch. The food sure hit the spot, as it always did, because American food science and agricultural ingenuity and postmodernism and greed and gorge. That’s one reason this works for us—we’re all in on the joke and paying for it. Honestly, I was sad to see the kids a day away from leaving—who else would I use as an excuse for fried family food treats and a mini-lecture on the wonder of the U.S. and Idaho potato industry?
Feeling fat and magnanimous, I asked over my shoulder what we should listen to this drive. Phyrex offered the Chapo podcast, episode 376, “Imagine a World Without.” It was all about the Bernie buddies teasing on animatronic presendential candidate Pete Buttigeig, former Indiana mayor, also our age, 37 years old. I listened, thinking it was okay in parts, taking pleasure in Phyrex’s giggling at insider banter, rooting for a guy like Bernie to really come in and offer just one alternative option to the spectacular contemporary political circle-jerk. I appreciated Bernie’s authentic persuasive dissent. I liked Mayor Pete too, and thought the Chapodes came across shallow and harsh when it came to our peer. Mayor Pete got me thinking of what I had done with my life in 37 years. I wasn’t fit or motivated to run for President, that’s for damn sure—I’d given up on that dream in the late eighties. I was pensive driving this Jeep I didn’t own down a road I’ve driven up and down my whole life, from the Snake River Mountains to the Wasatch, through the heart of the potato dirt to the pass to Zion, I-15 three and half hours just about every time, four with a gas stop, and now I carry you and your kids on it, after three real diplomas and one fake one, kicking my own ass for never having directed my creative energy to anything other than the unpaid page. Maybe I should’ve started a podcast.
Too, I thought about the layers of myself making this drive so many times before. Other rigs, other people, other family, other women. How many books I thought I was going to write about this stretch of road? Our reality had felt like a dream, a blessing, somehow unreal. I drove and watched you knit a hat, or a sock maybe, and you winked at me, and knitted on. I couldn’t hardly believe you and your kids.
Azrael took her turn to DJ, and we put on the Melanie Martinez album K-12. As we crossed the Idaho/Utah border doing 80 mph, I thought Martinez was onto something catchy. These two kids of yours, they are smarter than they should be, and that’s your fault. They also have good taste. We listened to “Drama Club” twice, and that popped. We were all car-grooving, you were making those lips and rolling your shoulders, knitting needles in your dance fists. I too tapped my left foot, getting loose. Then, before we got to the heavy Utah traffic, I put on a birthday song dedicated to Azrael, and turned it up. A song from Dirty Bourbon River Show called “All My Friends Are Dead.” It came up on a Spotify list while we were taking the dogs to the kennel, and it pleased her newly blackened teenage heart. The chorus was peppy, infinitely chantable, and harmlessly inappropriate. It was a fist-bumper, and Azrael looked pleased in this depressive generational angst. We were all seat-dancing and singing the chorus, engaged in a realtime organic family jam: EVERYBODY’S COMING TO MY PARTY / EVERYBODY’S COMING TO MY PARTY / EVERYBODY’S COMING TO MY PARTY / BUT I’M NOT FUCKING GOING TO THAT PARTY.
I pulled off at the Maverick in Brigham City to fuel and caffeinate and offload, and I texted BC that we were in his hometown, by the bird refugee, and also to get Azrael and Ellie connected on the celly-telly phones. Ellie, who you called your extra daughter, and BC, another Doctor of the Good Words, all of us had been tenants in a Houston genius flophouse now demolished and flipped into luxury three-story stand-alones. BC was from Brigham City but now lived in Vegas, teaching classes online. He texted back with directions to a chocolate shop and happy birthday wishes, which was a nice gesture but a detour we didn’t have time to take, though I lied and told him we did.
Then it was back on the road, through the brutal grays and flames of industrial urban rock face Utah. The air force base, the gravel pits, the refineries, the mines. Nothing like the fertile rows of my Idaho heritage, this terrain stayed generally displeasing to me. This was our promised land? My Zion? I always had my doubts, which made for most of my problems. I wondered what you made of the sight, your southern poet sensibilities applied to this dry windy salty western experiment, and I asked you what you thought, and your eyes got wet and distant, and all you could talk about was beauty, beauty, a setting to make belief in God imaginable. Oh the poems you could make ... Made me tear up too, this deep and abiding pleasure to show my world to you, your eyes and heart seasoned, your poetry sound.
We finally got off the highway and followed the map directions to my sister’s new house, down the second culdesac, not the first, which featured a front yard with a brass sculpture of three kids on a slide, no other shrubbery, very spooky. There was no snow down there, but the wind was brisk. We pulled into my sister’s driveway just after four in the afternoon, just like we’d always planned to do, according to our third best plan. Their driveway faced east, and we arrived in the house’s shadow. It already felt like the day was done.
But the party was just getting started now that we were here, as I announced packing in bags and pillows through the front door. There were Malorie’s sons, all younger than seven, all in matching but different superhero combat pajamas, and Trevor, her husband. They made a very nice and effective family. The oldest son insisted we all take our shoes off. This was the third home they’d bought since they’d been married, fiduciary wizards. Proudly, Malorie gave us the tour of it all, and I was impressed with the corner lot backyard, the varied fruit trees, all producing. We went upstairs and downstairs, saw the boys’s rooms and laundry and basement office/gym, and we all ended up back in the living room, wherein also were Katie and Deantre and Little Deantre, in from New York City for the holidays, and staying with us, riding back in the Jeep once we had the kids to the airport and on their plane tomorrow, we’d come back and taxi them north. It was great seeing them again, these newlywed parents who had traveled to Houston to celebrate our doctoral graduation last spring. The ceremony had been rained out, with Houston’s monster monsoon floods, but they’d made the most of it with us anyways.
Phyrex, Trevor, Deantre, and the oldest boy all took up the living room couch and had Switch paddles, ready to destroy each other in SmashBros. We watched for a while, and talked with Malorie as she started to make supper—chicken cordon bleu—and with Katie, about her new therapeutic work. Little Deantre had the saddest, most pathetic and adorable croup; he kept sneezing and wheezing and sighing those big boi sighs. You kept saying just looking at him gave you baby fever. He too wore combat pajamas, but these with footies, just a tiny tyke. At some point, you went downstairs with Azrael to situate our things. I’m pretty sure you both slipped down the stairs, in sequence.
Katie, her desire still unclear to me in many ways, wanted me to collaborate on a rewrite of popular hip-hop hit “Shoup” by Salt-N-Pepa. Except she wanted to parodize it into a song about Little Deantre’s croup. I told her I couldn’t help her, but that I championed her nonetheless. She started to pencil out the ditty, then quickly she darted off with Little Deantre in front of the gaming TV. I read Katie’s lyrics: Croup, Croup A Loup, Croup A Loup, Croup A Loup A Loup … Oh my goodness, girl, look at him! … ... He’s the sickest baby in here, and he’s coughing our way …
Outside, it was night dark, but the stove clock said 5:10 pm. The chicken finished and the potatoes got whipped, and we all squeezed in at Malorie and Trevor’s table and someone said a blessing on the food, maybe one of the boys, a child’s prayer, and then we feasted on homemade stuffed gerbils, what they always looked like to me, something I told to the table more than once. It got a laugh one time and no more. When I went back for seconds and all the hollandaise sauce was gone, I said that it was okay, I’d take my chicken dressed or naked, I liked them both the same. Not one adult at the table laughed at that, not even you. It felt good to be a family in the greater sense, to nourish and strengthen and josh each other, and also to celebrate, but also to be honest in reaction.
Before Malorie would allow herself to cut the cake for Azrael’s birthday, we went downstairs to play the interactive Jackbox party game where everyone uses their phones to group game. There were eight of us all down there engaged in word games and phrase battles, arenas in which I always considered myself above average, played out on a 70” flat screen as big as a wall. I won the first game no problem, but the second game I caught you reading over my shoulder at my semi-constructed answers. I felt busted en flagrante dictato, like you’d seen my simplicity. Exposed, I froze up. It cost me the round, which was okay, just to keep the peace. It’s important that I lose every day to maintain some humility. In this life I’ve been spoiled, had it that good, it’s important to get throttled occasionally. So I took my lumps and won the final round by a mile.
Back upstairs we went to the kitchen. Malorie produced the celebratory dessert, a twenty-inch high smore cake with graham cracker crust and crumbles and marshmallow creme and homemade chocolate icing. It was all homemade, by my sister, who loves to make cakes for people she loves, for your daughter, who loves to eat marshmallows. Who would have thought we could have all this cake and make room for more?
Remember Malorie’s second son? The one who reminded me a lot of me, speech impediment and all? How he decided to volunteer to be Azrael’s servant for her birthday, and was spinning her around in the office chair, and then running to the far end of the kitchen only to spring back and power slide at her on his knees? Utter rock-star devotion, and not bad gyrations, but so bound for heartbreak, that kid.
About then my parents—missionaries far far away in the Pacific island micronation of Kiribati—called me on Facebook Messenger. They had not been anywhere but the islands since June, in charge of the Mormon mission force there, and were a day ahead of us, their moment in 12.22, that much closer to the first long set of holidays that we were not spending together. And wow, this tech. Keeping families alive and together through the toughest international time-zones. It was too loud to talk and too tough a connection to have a conversation, so I turned the camera outward and showed them the family parties—the group dancing, the wild goofy hair shakes, the power-slides—and they just grinned and grinned on the video chat, mostly because they were glitchy and freezing, as the reality of that connection goes. It was an act of faith, this relationship with them, and us, and nice to sort of have them there, at least in pixel.
At some point most of the women and children retired to their sleeping lairs, yourself included. I listened for you to tumble down the stairs, but you didn’t, you conveyed yourself with safe expertise. Azrael went downstairs with you, and also didn’t fall. I stayed up playing some no-holds-barred rounds of SmashBros with the in-house pros: Phyrex, Trevor, and Deantre. Me, I hadn’t been into a video game since EXciteBike, and hadn’t been good at one since Mortal Kombat II. I backed my characters off the board to their deaths for most of the matchups. Once, by sheer accident, I came in second of four, and quit then knowing it would never get better. As always with Phyrex, I was proud of their intuition, their ferocity in competition, their clicker speed, their strategy, and annoyed at their unfettered punishment of me at games I did not care to know. NYU will be lucky to have them, and they will make more money in their artistry than either of us could ever dream. You did well with that one too, that kid, better than you should have given the circumstances. I turned over my game paddle and stood up, reminded Phyrex they’d still never beat me at chess, and headed downstairs, slipping on the fourth stair, failing to catch myself on the handrail.
Downstairs, Azrael was asleep on the oversized bean-bag chair, and you were on a recliner space in the big wrap-around leather couch, sitting straight up, knitting under the overhead lamp. You couldn’t sleep, upset in the stomach and heart from your daughter’s growing up and your children's departures, your change of station and situation, and the loss of your gallbladder. It was freezing cold in the basement, Malorie and Trevor not interested in spiking their power bill, so frigid I said I thought I could see my own breath but it was too dark to know. After midnight when I plugged in my phone to the entertainment center power strip and set an alarm for 4:00 am, then another for 4:04 am, then 4:05. We couldn’t miss getting the kids on their flights. We had no time for mistakes tomorrow, which was today, and couldn’t afford to make it like yesterday, which was over. We had to be on time, this time, for once.
You were insomniatic under the lamp light with your needles working, alert in your yarn care, and I figured you weren’t going to get much sleep, but we’d be all right. I knew the way to the airport, and needed to rest my eyes like two hours max. I knew you were sad to see them go, and needed my heat. I put on my coat and got two quilts and laid myself down on top of you, and the blankets on top of us, and I put my head in your lap, and you knitted and tinked in my ear. I held you by the hips, and started to fade, thinking if what we had just lived through was really truly the shortest coldest, maybe also it was one of our warmest brightest longest best.
Joshua Dewain Foster is a fiction and nonfiction writer living and working in eastern Idaho. He has earned degrees from University of Houston, University of Arizona, BYU-Idaho, and attended Stanford as a Stegner Fellow. Find him on the social medias or at joshuadewainfoster.com for more of his latest.