[Image: “The Imaginary Arctic Circle” by Eugene Ivanov]
There is the sour smell that marks a new car, the odor of manufactured, machine labor. Penelope and I are among the cars in line to exit this state. We had started every morning the last few years by asking one another, well, is today the day we pack it all up and head south of the border? We’re not leaving this country, but we are going west—which I was told was the most American thing one could do.
Between Penelope’s feet is a loaf of bread warm from the oven, because we refused to leave without fresh bread. Penelope had torn a piece from the back end of the loaf and she pulled the soft, spongey inside before she cracked the crust.
I asked, how is it? She answered with a guttural sound from the back of her throat and I was glad to hear it. I was glad we had finally taken flight from the train yard, but I couldn’t help but think of how we would miss it. Specifically, the comfortable reverberation of the eleven fourteen derailing just as we went to sleep.
The car was old when we bought it, or traded it really. Penelope got the deal, she traded the whole train yard for a sedan that was cut at odd angles and had a dent in the back rear door and wouldn’t open. The air conditioner worked some of the time and I had my hand out the window, but in traffic, there was little excitement.
I had thought of the time we met, Penelope and I, and I asked her to tell the story of our meeting. She told me that she was certain when we’d met that we’d dipped a bucket into a well of love. And I said, no, we dipped our toes and now we’re drowning.
It’s a funny thing to drown, Penelope had said and I asked her how she meant. Well, haven’t I told you about the arctic angel? I asked if she meant the arc angel and she said, no, this was the angel that fell to earth and landed in the arctic.
It was a fisherman, she told me. The fisherman had been left behind and was never a fisherman until he was stranded in the arctic. Before that he was an accountant in the metro area of Illinois.
The same, Penelope said. And she told me the fisherman decided to make a life in the arctic, because the only other choice would have been death. He had been fishing when the angel landed with a thump in the snow–the kind that made the fisherman believe the earth was hollow.
Someone had gotten on their horn and interrupted Penelope. She was slumped in the passenger seat and her shirt was loose and colorful. Her hair was tied nearer the top of her head and I stopped, but wanted to tuck her hair behind her ear. Her eyes are set against the sun and I pull down the visor from the roof, but she’s too low for it to make any difference.
What do you think we’ll do? Penelope asked me and I answered that we’d have odd kids and a front porch. There’ll be two, Penelope said. And I said, at least, and we named them Oscar and Cessna.
The kids wouldn’t quiet down, not in that traffic. Penelope passed them bread to keep them pacified. There’s a diner off the next exit, I said to them, but I had no way of knowing what was coming up.
But Dad, Cessna said to me, and I tell Oscar to knock it off and I regret that I’ve become the father that says knock it off, and I have the want to call my own father. To apologize mostly for the way in which I was a son and, even, a father. It wasn’t until I was a father that I truly knew the depths of disappointment. Not in my own children, but in myself and in Penelope. We both had sunk and lost ourselves in it more than we’d realized until it was too late and we were leaving. There was a projection of what we hoped for and in working toward it we sacrificed the very things we intended to maintain.
Oscar has the hair of his mother, it’s long and wild and falls below his brow. They both wear it to their shoulder or just above. The boy pressed his face against the window and fell to sleep there and the clouds are moving in thick off the coast. Music is broadcasted from one of the devices in the car and I regret that my children won’t likely have the joy of tuning something away from static. Mostly, I regret they won’t have the joy of finding Sinatra’s clarity on route three while sand dunes loom on the side of the road and coyotes nest and roam the shoulder.
You can’t really drown, Penelope said. Then she tells me the fisherman turned the angel over in the snow and she was, of course, beautiful and the fisherman fell to love. He picked the angel up and she wrapped her hand around her neck and he carried her to the shelter he had made himself. But the angel doesn’t get better and the fisherman stops fishing so now the arctic angel is dying and the fisherman is only a man.
Where’d you hear this story? I asked and Penelope told me. We had been on the road long enough the car was full of crumbs and smelled of us, which was mostly to say it smelled like the sweat of our feet and the grass clippings from Oscar and Cessna and the sports they played.
But where Cessna was best was when she was dancing. Her body had a command of motion and it was a real delight to watch her navigate her world. It was only that morning at the grocery store, as Cessna walked she drifted a finger across each apple and she lowered her chin to the grapes and smelled the potatoes. She inspected aisles with her hands behind her back and she wore coveralls and was nearly as tall as her mother and still growing. At that age, she had the awkwardness of youth and the gainliness of growing up. Cessna told me she’d never forgive me for making her move to a new city and I told her I knew, but that I’d live with it.
Even Penelope had lost her faith that what we had done was right to begin with and I didn’t fault her in the least. Her eyes were closed and her lips parted, but I knew she was awake and I called her name.
The roads were surrounded by thicket beyond the guard rail. When I was a kid, my brother and I wore sleeping bags and pretended to be monsters and bounced off from trees and slunk around in the leaves. His monster was always the one that ate me and would tackle me to the ground, I was always smaller even when we reached adulthood and it was mainly in part of the illnesses that I caught in youth.
I’d tracked the lanes and the yellow moving van is three cars back on the left and the roofless sedan on my right is a few lengths ahead, but largely we’re all the same. The sun is absorbed in the car and my arm takes the brunt of the heat.
Penelope told me that the man had forgotten the reason he had taken the angel to begin with and that eventually he began to resent her. He believed that it was the angel that had kept him in the arctic and entrapped her and he told her so. And then, Penelope said, the angel took a strip of skin from her forearm—she dug a fingernail below her elbow and it peeled away. The angel tossed it into the fire and it was warm and easy and the man felt full. They spent the next few weeks in that way. The man drank melted snow and had snuck pieces of the angel’s flesh to eat. Meanwhile the angel knew all of this, but she loved the man and resigned to her fate—she always had been. And she had seen it all unfold before the man, that he would love her and she him, that he would resent her before she had the chance to die in her sleep, and that she would hasten the process so that she would go and return to a happy place in the man’s mind.
I asked her if this was a story for the kids, but they wore headphones or were asleep. Or pretending to be, I said. Penelope was right, that the kids would be on their own soon and I knew it was something she had feared. Not their leaving, but on being with me.
We had finally gotten out of the mountains, but their proximity and their rising walls were a comfort. Without them, we were exposed to the sprawl of sky, long and blue and unmarked by clouds. It was unreasonably flat here and even the trees were long and cylindrical as though in effort to take up the least amount of space with their branches grown in parallel with their trunks. Do you think, I asked, if they’re shaped? The connection between phone and radio was interrupted and there was a skip in the song before it cut out.
It was the song that Cessna had danced to in her own senior recital, a movement she had choreographed on her own. At that recital, it was Penelope that looked most beautiful. She had turned to me and was laughing at someone else’s joke. She held a bite of something in her left hand and her shoulders rounded in my direction. Her elbow bent into her ribs and her back curved until the hook of her smile straightened and she turned from me.
The window had a chill from the window and I apologized again to Oscar for not being able to drive, but he said it was okay. He turned a dial at the center console and the air could be heard as it left the vents and warmed my feet. Oscar had the same narrow jaw of his mother and it suited him. There was a photograph of him and a man in the dashboard and beside it was a bishop chess piece. Oscar, I said and he asked me to tell him the story Mom had always told.
The one that ends well? I asked and he answered no, the angel. Oh, I said and asked, where should I pick up?
It was the man, in the end, who asked the angel to stop, but by then it was too late. The man scooped the angel, who had withered and dried, into his arms and went out into the snow. Beneath the man’s feet, the snow had layered to ice and made the walk treacherous and he slipped or cracked through the snow’s crust. The man was desperate to keep himself from losing the angel and he knew of a boat, but knew that it would be nearly hopeless if he found it. The man didn’t have enough supplies to make any journey of real length, least of all enough to keep warm overnight.
Still, the man continued in the effort of finding the angel some sort of hope, she sang him a song. You make me feel, make me feel so and the wind became a gust and brought chips of snow and ice into the man’s face and was so cold the man’s face became burnt. Like I just came awake, not afraid to be, and the man knew the words were familiar, but begged her to sing no longer.
The boat had two oars and the man removed his own clothing to dress the angel. Once in the water, the man felt the cold enter his entire person, not first from his finger, but in his lungs and then it spread from his trunk to his limbs.
Oscar spoke, this isn’t the way mom told it. No, I said. But I couldn’t be certain. I said, isn’t there more ways to tell any story? Ask her to tell you, I said. And I meant it without insult, but we both were stung.
We had taken to stopping at every rest stop since they were sparse on the interstate and I gripped Oscar above his elbow and he took me below the arms and lifted me to my feet. I clung to his elbow and leaned into my cane. Summer was nearly here and the air had the fresh smell of impending rain. We stood beneath a blue sky and the clouds that moved in had the hazy undertow of rain. The leaves are curled, Oscar said, and I told him I’ve never understood his fascination with weather, but that I admired it. I have often told Oscar he has his mother’s curiosity.
When we walked back to the car Oscar told me he was in love. A real kind of way, he said, and that he hoped to be married. I really want you to be there, he said. I know, I said. And Oscar held my shoulder while I shuffled back into the car.
May I sleep, I asked? And finish the story, I said. I knew Oscar would tell it the way he thought his mother told it, but I couldn’t remember if it was me or her that told the story first to begin with anyway.
The man was on the water, Oscar said, in a boat no bigger than a dingy, and the name had been worn, but the angel asked the man to name it. Without clothing, the man was too cold to speak and he clasped his jaw to stop its clatter. The man rowed with his back against the horizon and the angel laid at his feet, her head cradled between his ankles and against a preserver.
Waves, rolled in the inlet between ice and land and were cut in size so they slapped the underside of the boat, but did little to force it to rock. The man leaned into the rowing so his body bent double and then, used only his back to pull himself out so as not to disturb the angel. In his mind, he repeated the same name again and again, but he knew if he spoke the boat’s name it would rob the boat, the angel, and the man of what significance they had left.
In the backseat, was my grandson and even though I asked her not to, my daughter-in-law cradled the infant out of his chair. God forbid, I said, and she pressed her fingers to my shoulder and then moved them up to my neck and she took hold of its base and I was calm. She sang a song in absence of the radio and my son, Oscar, echoed her chorus and the baby had been named only weeks before. Their voices were together and a light wind drifted in the window. We drove against a rising sun and my body was rigid against the seat, unable to surrender to its curve. My son’s thumbs drubbed against the wheel and he spent more time smiling into the rearview than watching the road, but I knew better than to chide him.
It was his mother that presided over the ceremony and the three of them were alone at the chapel. I sat beside my daughter and we went bowling in the morning. Cessna maintained her grace even as she aged and her legs formed a triangle as the ball was released to the lane. It took the lane without sound and her ball only called its existence when it struck the pins.
When they reached the open sea, the waves carried gravity and their tendrils extended and licked the inside of the boat and coated the man and the angel in an icy dew. The man no longer felt the oars in his hands and his whole body throbbed, but his mind numbed and was pacified. The rowing now was gentle and came only from the strength left in the man’s arms.
The boat carried along with the tide and the man was no longer alone. Several other boats of the same size gained on him and they were rowed by geese. The geese were large and their slender necks curved and straightened as they rowed. Each goose barked as it rowed and the sound reverberated in the man’s chest and warmed him. The rowing became easier with their noise, but his boat took on water as they called. In the water, the geese seemed to glide and their boats cut through the ocean and were nimble. Their call got louder as they neared and in its symphony began to round and sounded su the oars cut the ocean san the man’s vision became hazy nah until there was only black, but following the call, the man felt his boat become lighter and there was no feeling in his feet or his hands. The man bent his body and threw it against the waves, su and the sound circled him and entered both ears with force san and then it was beyond him nah and reeled him forward.
At the wheel, the driver stopped the story. He had turned the air off when the moon took its place above them. It was visible between mountains, but with the windows and previously recycled air the car had the languid, sour smell of stagnancy. The man opened the vents and let the cool night air seep in.
Su Nadeau is fascinated by soups, bread, and humans. He is an MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago. Su‘s work is forthcoming in Yalobusha Review and can be found in Green Mountain Review, Timber Journal, Literary Orphans, and elsewhere.