In her letter Alexie professes a newfound love of squirrels. Not just any squirrels, but the fat white ones—A-L-B-I-N-O ones—which she spells in gargantuan letters. She’s included a drawing of the creature, a blank sheet of paper with a single caption up top—“DEAR GRANDPA: ALBINO SQUIRREL. LOVE YOU, ALEXIE”—and then I can’t figure out what shocks me more: this sudden onset of comic genius or that she’s learned to spell so beautifully in the time I’ve been gone.
I display her invisible squirrel among the rest of her animal menagerie, her astounding evolution of language framing my window. Outside, the expanse of sand is bland and monotonous next to Alexie’s brilliant locomotive life. One day she’ll graduate college, write articles with four-syllable words, marry a lawyer in Chicago. For now, she’s only seven-years-old and madly in love with bleached rodents—but even if she isn’t, I can’t know for sure, everything she’s becoming.
When she asks why I can’t leave the desert, I tell her I’m a newborn turtle following the moon to the sea.
“Why does it follow the moon,” she says.
“It follows the moon, Alexie, because it wants to live.”
When I came here a year ago, I hadn’t expected to survive, only to temper the symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease—a last stretch at life, however short, in whatever comfort the climate could provide me. Back in New York, I’d fought for oxygen through 60-percent humidity, pedestrians and pigeons and crowds of tourists. I’d panted at windowsills and air conditioning units, opening and closing freezer doors for whatever relief I could muster. In July, I began collapsing on sidewalks—purple, deranged, my tongue sore from beckoning air—and when I hit my head on the bathroom sink, unconscious and bleeding, my doctor suggested the desert. I said yes, the desert, because I wanted to breathe.
“Dad, that’s a thousand miles away,” Marcie had said, “Alexie and me—her school, my job, Darron’s business. I can’t—I don’t want you to be alone.”
“It’s a five-hour plane ride. We’ll have trips. The Grand Canyon. Letters. Phone calls. And when it gets close, at the end—”
“I’ll call you.”
Marcie took a week off to move me into a one-bedroom house a hundred miles south of Phoenix. She set up pictures of Alexie on the built-in bookshelves, plugged the charger for my oxygen tank into a convenient outlet, and made a list of emergency contact numbers that included my neighbor, Joe—“he’s about your age, dad”—who was willing, he said, to drive me anywhere so long as I watched Monday night football.
“Don’t much like people who don’t like football,” he said, and when I said football was fine—even the Cardinals—he said “well alright then.”
When Marcie said goodbye, she wrapped her arms around my middle the way she did as a child when she was afraid of thunderstorms or monsters or telling me something awful she’d done—or was afraid of doing.
“It’s okay,” I’d said, “I’m okay. Are you okay?”
“Okay,” she said, “I’m okay,” and smiled and wiped her eyes.
At first, the desert seemed a mistake. I’d collapsed in the bathroom the first week and called Joe the second—a night in the ER with full blood work and an oxygen mask and Prednisone to jumpstart my lungs.
“You want to call Marcie?” Joe had said, “I’ve got her number here.”
“No,” I said, “no use worrying her, nothing to be done.”
I slept each night waiting for the fluid in my lungs to suffocate me, a tidal wave of breath and panic as my lining gave way, snapping limp like a shot-out pair of Fruit of the Loom. I kept Marcie’s number by my bedside, ready to call, nearing the end.
And then, without warning, I found I could breathe. It happened one morning, breaths deep and glorious and burning like peppermint, sharp as Listerine.
“Something’s happened,” I said to Joe.
“Something good or something bad.”
“My lungs. They burn.”
“Like they’re on fire?”
“Like they’re working.”
I slept for twelve hours that night, uninterrupted by cough or breathlessness or the wheeze of my oxygen tank, and when I’d had enough of sleeping, I went for a walk in the wide open landscape, my chest full and fat, stinging like iodine slapped fresh in a cut.
Weeks went by. And months. And a year, and I began to wonder if I was cured. If it was a miracle, or if the desert was merely prolonging the inevitable. I was afraid of probing—breaking the spell, nosing around X-rays and doctors and exams. Unsettling the mysterious equilibrium going on inside me. But when the end never came, I just kept right on breathing, gulping down the glorious, arid air.
Joe says my lungs are like the Egyptians, thousand-year-old mummies. He says you can even crystallize honey here, serve it up on pancakes 50 years later and the stuff will run golden like a river—“sweartogod,” he says, “stuff’s good as anything”—and I tell Marcie about this, how maybe the desert is a kind of cryogenic freezing.
“But what do the doctors say?” she wants to know. “Maybe it’s a fluke, maybe there’s nothing wrong with you at all. Maybe there never was,” but I tell her there’s something here I don’t want to disrupt.
“I don’t want to rock the boat,” I say, “whatever it is,” and that’s what I do—I don’t rock the boat. I go on living just fine until Alexie’s letters arrive in the mail and I remember everything outside the desert, how it’s thriving without me.
For this reason the most beautiful object in my trailer is my telephone. Sometimes I sit beside it and wait for it to ring, so when—like today—it bursts into song and Alexie and her mother are on the other end, I’m elated. Their voices are familiar and unfamiliar. Marcie sounds like Alexie and Alexie like Marcie, so I have to ask how old Alexie is again.
“Seven, Grandpa, I’m SEVEN.”
“Well how about that,” I say, “you’re getting so old I can’t even recognize you.”
“You get my squirrel?”
“I did, yes. A very clever squirrel.”
There’s other news, too, a string of developments that leave me satisfied and jittery, squirming like a half-dead fish with the bait still inside my mouth. Marcie fires them off in sequence: Alexie has a new friend named Tommy; King George has a boil behind his ear; Alexie lost another tooth; King George is too fat again; Marcie’s divorce papers are finally going through after weeks of paper-shuffling.
“Yes. Not yet, but soon,” and the week after next, when she calls again, there’s a new man in the picture: “There’s Steve to consider in all this, you know,” as if I should have known, all along, about Steve.
“Who’s Steve?” I ask.
“Dad, I told you. The man in my law firm.”
“You love him.”
“Why else would I consider all this.”
“Of course,” because affirmation of something you don’t know is far better than the alternative.
Joe, on the other hand, is cued into every detail of my existence—and I his—because there’s nothing else to do in a hundred miles of sterile dirt but draw out the everyday events of two old men and watch the occasional dust storm kick up flecks of brilliant aluminum across the horizon.
I tell him I can’t keep up with Alexie and Marcie.
“It’s like that old Donald Duck cartoon,” I say, “Donald versus four corners of a tent.”
He tells me to book a flight home.
“What’s the big fuss,” he says. “Take a day. Sweartogod. What can happen,” and the way he slurps his Guinness—sloshing it on the ground, his shirt, the heady foam dissolving in the gray hair of his goatee—I want to believe in the casualness of it all.
“I can’t,” I say, “what if it comes back, if I can’t breathe,” but Joe doesn’t hear me, distracted by a scorpion he’s squished with the tip of his boot. “Should’ve stayed out there, buddy,” he says, and tosses its body back to the desert.
In spring there’s a wedding invitation in the mail—a beautiful fuchsia tri-fold with a tulip border. Marcie’s getting married. At first I worry about attire—olive, tweed, stripe—but I put these notions aside when I see ALBANY, NEW YORK beneath a score of calligraphy.
I call Marcie that afternoon.
“I thought it would be here,” I say.
“Steve only has three days off from work. I thought you might be open to coming home for a day or two, with how well you’ve been doing.”
“There’s oxygen in New York, dad, same as anywhere else. It’d mean the world to me. To Alexie. To Steve, too. Maybe you’re not sick anymore—have you been to the doctor?” and when I tell her I haven’t, that I can’t, that I love her, I hang up the phone and buy the most beautiful Hallmark card I can find.
I tell myself it’s the best I can do.
In her letter a few months later Alexie tells me the wedding was LUXURIANT, and I have to do the math to confirm she’s nine-years-old. When I call home, I can only assume the man’s voice on the machine is Steve, a baritone raw and scratched from nicotine. In a return letter I write: “Alexie, your stepdaddy needs to watch his smoking. He’ll find himself in the desert like me,” but in her next letter she says Steve has gone to Florida INDEFINITELY and isn’t that MELANCHOLIC, grandpa, how things work out.
Our next phone call is Sunday and Alexie whispers so I can barely make out what she’s saying.
“What’s with the voice,” I say.
“We should come live with you.”
“Where’s your mother, let me have a word at her.”
“What is it, Alexie.”
“Mom says there’s nothing wrong with you. She says you’re scared there is but there isn’t.”
“What do you think?”
“I think mom needs you here.”
The nearest clinic is twenty-five miles away. Joe drives me in his SUV and we bounce across the uneven, cracked pavement of a highway I can’t name. The outskirts have changed without notice, clusters of newborn dunes rising from the desert like pinched, dehydrated skin. Miles of sterile ground, purer than hospital blankets. I roll down the window to breathe in the sharp slap of sky and cough from the burn.
When the doctor pins my MRI to a light box, there’s nothing wrong with me.
“There was something wrong,” I tell the doctor, “before.”
“There’s not now,” he says, and I tell Joe you can slice just about anything two ways.
“How’s that?” he says.
“I’m certifiable or the desert’s keeping me alive.”
Alexie stops writing. A drought of letters. Calls. My telephone is black and maddening and all the more desirable because it isn’t ringing. The voicemail is voice-less, clicks to a long hum and then emptiness I fill with messages for Marcie and Alexie.
I write my own letters.
I draw a self-portrait and leave it blank: “DEAR ALEXIE: THE DISEASE IN GRANDPA’S LUNGS. LOVE, GRANDPA.”
The desert, Alexie, is keeping me alive.
On Monday a woman calls, a neighbor.
“I’m a friend of Marcie and Alexie’s,” she says. Her name is Gloria. She tells me Marcie’s checked herself into a clinic, voluntarily. “I’m sure you’ve heard about Steve? Just ran off, that one. No rhyme or reason.”
“I haven’t,” I say, “I haven’t heard anything,” of Steve, of this, of Marcie.
Alexie is on the line now—“grandpa? you there?”—and her tenor has the calm, silver manicure of a girl accustomed to crisis.
“Alexie, is that you? Where’s your mother.”
“She’s sick, grandpa.”
“I’m here, Alexie.”
“We need you.”
“You book a flight?” he says.
“Not yet,” I say. “I will when I get there.”
I roll down the window and the desert whips my face and teeth and gums. I’m greedy,
sucking oxygen, filling my cheeks until they stretch thin and ache and I massage them back to life.
“Figure I’ll pocket some while I can,” I say.
Joe smiles at the dust-fogged windshield.
“Shame they don’t make Zip-Lock baggies for that.”
“It is,” I say.
At 30,000 feet the desert recedes at the Colorado border, evergreen replacing sand. Pine tops sprouting like tufts of chemo patients. The bleach of Arizona fades in the periphery, my window filling with olive and jungle, green constricting brown. I loosen my collar, untuck my Polo. I yawn to force the oxygen down my bronchial lining. I cough. My pants are tight. I wonder if I’m imagining things: the desert leaving my body.
At the airport, Alexie is taller than I remember. Her hair is brown—not blonde—swept up in a bun too tight for her. She has to call out to me before I recognize her, and when I do I hold her unfamiliar frame.
“You’re huge,” I say, “when did you get so big?”
“I sent you photos,” she says.
“Never as good as the real thing,” and I tell her about the animal menagerie I’ve made, all her drawings and letters framing the window that looks out onto the desert.
“I love rocks now,” she says, “GEODES,” and she cups one in the pink of her palm, a cross section of gray and black with purple crystals at its center.
“A geologist now,” I say, and her eyes—more green than I remember—spiral and widen at the compliment, this milestone I’m here to witness.
At the hospital Marcie is in a corner room, white without windows or pictures. I pull at my collar. I yawn to push the air down inside my lungs. I cough over my shoulder, the phlegm not moving. I am dizzy. Faint. The bed and walls and Marcie’s IV. The room asthmatic.
Marcie’s eyes are closed and moist with Vaseline. Her mouth is blistered with tiny red sores that, from a distance, remind me of the fruit punch stains she wore as a child. I pat her wrist, stroke the finger where a ring is absent. The doctors say a nervous breakdown, stress. Three weeks, she’ll be here.
Alexie and I sit on the bed next to Marcie whose fingernails are pink. Toenails, too. Like the paws of a cat. I smile., then cough. Alexie rests her head against my chest, places her pet rock in my palm which I squeeze along with her tiny shoulder. I sit between us: Marcie, me, Alexie. Together.
“Grandpa?” Alexie says.
“What is it, Alexie.”
“Will everything be okay?”
“Everything will be okay,” I say, and let out the last of the desert air.