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Homecoming

                                    Jessie Szalay


I drive through grasslands fast as I dare, very late to the costume party. A few stars shine but there is little moon, and in the dark I see only wisps of the tall grass waving in the wind, only snatches of crumbly ranch houses illuminated by dangling porch lights. There are about five miles of rural flatlands between Utah’s Great Salt Lake and the western edge of the Wasatch Mountains, where my parents live in Ogden, a city that stretches nearly halfway up the range. I am driving west, toward the Lake, and through the car vents I can feel the salt air blowing off the brown, stinging lake shallows that are swarming with brine shrimp—and at this time of year, little else. By Thanksgiving, the mosquitoes are all dead.

My friend Stef and I went to high school together in Ogden, up on the mountain. Now she lives in these flatlands. Now I live in Washington, DC. I’m only here for Thanksgiving week and am leaving tomorrow. I haven’t yet seen Stef or her house, bought new with her husband Jack. I’ve been hiking constantly and eating Tofurky with my parents, staring at the peak outside the kitchen window. Yesterday, I found a goat trail and followed it up a couple thousand feet, past boulders speckled with hard moss.

Stef, I’m sure, lives in one of the suburban mansions that have sprung up rash-like in the flatlands over the last decade. Before them, no one lived out here but Mormon ranchers and cattle with a taste for salted grass. Years ago, my parents briefly considered living here, but they decided it was too Mormon. It was important, they said, to live where you could at least try to build community, and they’ve cobbled together a group of spiritual but not religious friends for parties and hikes and boozy art gallery openings. I don’t really understand what Stef’s doing out here, atheist and liberal, with her two divorces and her whiskey cabinet. She and Jack are having a baby and have decorated the nursery with a Corpse Bride theme. Who the hell is that kid going to hang out with in these boonies? Plus, it’s a real drive out here. The road is curvy, and each turn makes me think I’m lost. I curse Stef’s far-away house under my breath. The only time I should have to come out this far is to watch birds and bison at the Lake.

These tidal flatlands are one of North America’s primary spots for migratory birds. I’m no birdwatcher so I usually miss the tiny ones, the white-bellied snowy plovers, but I always gasp at the bald eagles, the ibises, black-necked stilts teetering on toothpick legs. And the bison still trick me into thinking they’re boulders half the time. The antelope are my favorite though, always giving me a little sense of being sucked through a wormhole to Africa. But the animals mostly live around the shoreline or on windswept islands. They avoid the suburbs, even the Mormon ranches, just like I do. I understand why they like the Lake, though. In DC, I often stare at my office computer and fantasize about flying into Utah. I love the view of the Lake from above, splotchy, brown and white and alien, like water droplets on a film negative. When the Lake appears in that thick airplane window, I know I’m home.

For this trip, however, I flew in at midnight and couldn’t see the Lake. And my flight back to DC is at seven a.m. tomorrow. It will still be dark; I won’t be able to see the Lake as I fly out, either.

I’ve come in and out of Utah so many times, but this time is different. Before, there’s always been a chance I’ll live here again in the relatively near future. I spent most of my twenties leaving for a year or two to teach overseas, and then coming back to my parents’ cozy mountain house, to my old high school friends, to the familiar trails and scrambling rocks. But now I have a real, grown-up job in advertising and live a Victorian brownstone in a hip neighborhood. I have health insurance and furniture and friends and, for the first time in my adult life, no concrete plans to leave. Utah, its land and its people, are no longer quite so much mine, no more than this Subaru that I’ve borrowed from my parents.

Even my costume for Stef’s Harry Potter party is mostly comprised of my father’s things. I’m Moaning Myrtle, the sad-sack ghost of a witch who haunts a bathroom. She was a student at wizard boarding school, so I made her uniform from Dad’s blue and black striped tie and his white button-down. An old graduation gown from the school where he teaches is doubling as my wizarding robe. Only the white makeup caked on my face is mine, left over from a high school production of Arsenic and Old Lace. The tie is tight around my neck, and I toy at it with my fingers, clumsy in gloves. My phone is buzzing on the seat next to me, and I know it’s Stef. I was supposed to have been at the party over an hour ago. I haven’t seen anything even resembling the suburbs yet. There’s a white house on the horizon but it’s just another little farm house. I smack the steering wheel with one hand. Who the hell lives out here besides Mormons, anyway?

Suddenly, there is a flash of white on the road in front of me. A dog. Small and fast and coming right at my tires. My brakes are louder than I’ve ever heard, like movie theater surround sound in my parents’ tiny Subaru. The shriek seems to go on long after the car has stopped. I don’t know if I hit the dog or not, but I drive off.

 

I once saw somebody run over a cat and drive off. They didn’t stop for a second, just kept driving down that tree-lined street. From the car behind them, I could see the backs of their heads bobbing along with the radio. It happens. People do things like kill animals. They don’t get in trouble. Not at all. On the East Cost highways, animal corpses dot the sides of the roads like confetti.

I pull over.

I can kill ants en masse with a wet paper towel and run down roaches with cans of death spray, even enjoy watching their legs curl into stillness. I consider the day I learned to kill roaches a marker of losing childhood naiveté and gaining adult practicality. But now I am a dog murderer and the thought make me shake and sob and hit the steering wheel, the dashboard, and my thighs. The horn goes off once, accidentally.

My cell phone buzzes; there are six messages from Stef, Jack, and other friends. Without looking at them, I dial my parents’ phone. My voice is terrifyingly loud in the car, all half-sobs as I say that maybe I hit a dog and I am on some road by the Salt Lake and can’t move.

“Do you want me and Dad to come out?” Mom asks, sounding sort of confused. It must have been years since I wailed at her in quite this way, like a baby. Just that morning, as she watched me pack my things, she told me how good my life looks.

“Yeah. Please. Please, come.”

When we hang up, I take a deep breath, start the car, and make a wide turn.

 

The Christmas lights are already up at the old ranch house, a single line around the gutters and windows, small red spots like acne against the peeling white paint. There is a wreath, too, a heavy circle of plastic needles dotted with stiff glittered snowflakes. I stare at it while I wait for the door to open. A reflection of my face in the storm door floats over the wreath. I am a puffy, red-faced mess with mascara everywhere and tear streaks in my white makeup. I don’t try to wipe it away—I want them to know I’m upset.

The plastic wreath sways on its nail as the door opens. Standing there is a Mormon mom—I may not live here anymore but I can still tell. She’s short and a little round with too-blue jeans, and her bangs are sprayed so they’re still puffy at eight in the evening. On the wall next to her is one of those LDS paintings of a blond, slightly feminine Jesus standing on a sunlit rock.

I am trying so hard not to cry that I can’t really get the words out, mumbling, “I was driving, and, and, I’m late, and. . .”

“Did you hit the dog?” she asks.

“I think maybe,” I say, taken aback.

“I thought Tizzy was inside, but I don’t think she is. We heard the screech of the brakes, maybe fifteen minutes ago.”

I look down at the Santa Claus welcome mat. “I know, I should have come back sooner. But, I don’t know. . .”

The woman looks at me sympathetically but I don’t know how she could be anything but furious. She calls over her shoulder, “Mackenzie!”

A teenage girl past the typical age for braces but still wearing them comes up behind her mother. She is taller than her mom, like I am with mine.

“When did you last see Tizzy?”

“An hour ago? I let her out, I don’t think she’s wanted to be let back in yet.”

“This girl thinks she hit her, when we heard the brakes a little while ago.”

The daughter pushes past me into the dark, her braced teeth clenched. The mom pauses to get jackets, and we follow.

We look around the narrow dirt shoulder by the light of the stars and the porch light. There are tire marks on the asphalt where I stopped. I’m breathing fast and shallow, expecting to see Tizzy lying there, limbs splayed out like a hunter’s trophy skin. That’s how the run-over rats in my DC neighborhood sometimes look. There’s something cartoonish about them, a caricature of a dead thing, and I can’t believe I might have made that happen. We look on the grille of the Subaru and under the car and all around the tire marks, but there is no white dog. I stop biting my lip, relax my jaw.

Then the daughter says, “Maybe she got hurt and ran off.” She tears off into the house, calling, “I’m getting flashlights.”

“Call your dad,” the mom says after her. Then she asks me, “Do you go to Ogden High?”

All I can do was shake my head. I certainly can’t tell her I’m twenty-eight.

The breeze is cold; the grass and my long wizard robe rustle, moving this way and that, together like dancers. The girl returns and we set off into the field. As we trample through the grass, I can almost hear Tizzy whimpering, and I keep turning around expecting to see her dying. In those fifteen minutes when I drove off and cried in the car, I could have found her, saved her.

We all call out, “Tizzy, here girl!” and stare down as we part the grass. The chill and the movement have frozen the flow of my tears and my near-hyperventilating breaths, but my hands are steadied only by sheer will.

They both seem so calm. I wonder if they are thinking about cute things Tizzy does, about how she licks their hands with a tongue as light as a butterfly, about how her dead body will look, about life without her. Probably not. They have that serenity of religious people, as if Jesus has his hand on their shoulder, telling them it will all be okay.

My parents arrive first. Their sedan has weak lights and I don’t notice them until Dad calls, “Jessie Laurel!” They hug me when I emerge from the grass. Mom furrows her brow when she sees me, wipes my cheek with her thumb. Dad smiles and looks at me fondly, as if I am a kid who’s stolen a candy bar from the grocery. I’m suddenly embarrassed they’re there.

A dog barks from inside the car.

“Is that Mira?” I ask, unable to see through the tinted windows.

“Yep,” Dad says, opening the back door a bit. Our dog, a black-and-white springer spaniel, sticks her nose out, sniffing eagerly. “We thought you could use some dog time.”

I put my arms around Mira’s neck. This is all wrong. I’ve possibly killed someone else’s dog; the owners are the ones in need of comforting. If this had happened in DC, I wouldn’t have called Mom and Dad, I tell myself. Maybe I would have cried, but I certainly wouldn’t have my own dog here, rubbing it in the family’s face.

“She called us right after the accident,” Dad tells the woman when she walks up.

“It’s so good of you to come out. Your daughter, she was a wreck.”

“She’s a little sensitive,” Dad says, agreeably.

“We’re searching for Tizzy,” I say. “We should get back out there.”

I hold Mom’s hand as we walk through the field. Dad and the woman talk, and I hear him say, “She totaled the car when a pheasant ran in front of us in Idaho.” It’s true; I was sixteen, and had had my license for a week.

“Are you going to go to the party?” Mom asks as we push our way through the grass.

“Be careful,” I say. “We don’t want to step on her if she’s lying hurt.”

“Okay.” She rubs my back, then says, “You should probably let them know if you’re not coming.”

Checking my phone, I see seven texts and three missed calls. I read the first text, Where are you? I’m wearing my Bellatrix outfit! Come! We want to see you! I write back, I think I hit a dog driving out here. Not sure what’s going on. I ignore the other messages.

My phone buzzes. The message from Stef reads, Oh no! But I’m sure if the dog ran off it’s okay. Come over!

I respond, I’m worried she’s hurt in the field.
Stef writes, If you haven’t found her yet I’m sure she’s fine. If she was hurt she couldn’t have gotten that far.

“She might be right,” Mom says, reading the text over my shoulder, and squeezes my hand.
I clench my jaw and tuck my hands into my wizarding robe. I’m not leaving until Tizzy is found. It’s the one right, responsible, adult thing I can still do. I might be the one with the cool job in a big city, but my Utah friends always have been, and probably always will be, more adult than I. They married after high school while I sometimes have dates. They own houses while I rent, and they have children while I have hangovers. I am okay with this, usually. I like my life and don’t want theirs. But I should be going to their party stylish and shining with urban success. Instead, once again I am the young one, the innocent, the one who hasn’t experienced enough of mortgage payments and childbirth to know that road kill doesn’t matter.

 

When the Mormon cavalry arrives we see them coming from a mile away. Their extended cab Dodge Rams have bright headlights that illuminate the field and the winding road. The trucks rumble to a stop, four in total, straight in a line. Simultaneously doors open and sixteen children of Heavenly Father climb out.

“This is my husband,” the woman says, gesturing to a tall, thin man with a doughy face. His blond hair is spiked up like the boys at my high school’s had been ten years ago, like I imagine his son’s is. “This is the girl who hit Tizzy.”

The tears start welling up again. I fumble with my wizarding robe but say nothing.

With the husband come eight more men and four more women. They all look very parental. There are four teenagers, too, in hoodies with their high school’s initials in fuzzy block letters. The girls wear thick makeup.

Without any explanation my parents and I know that they are aunts, uncles, cousins, and other church members, all here as a result of one phone call to the husband, all here to look for the little dog. The teenage daughter runs to the girls and they embrace, swaying together.

“We’re so sorry,” one of the girls says.

“I’m sure she’s okay,” says another.

And another: “Don’t worry, we’ll find her, as long as it takes.”

The field is streaked with light from the beams of so many industrial flashlights as we resume our search, all the Mormon brothers and sisters, and me and my little family. There’s a big gust of wind and we all shiver. It carries the lake smell, which isn’t salty like the ocean but like pickles. I wonder if the Mormons notice. The family’s house is old, which means they’ve probably raised at least five grown kids here, or that it’s been in the family for generations. I wonder if they have horses or cattle, if their pioneer ancestors picked this spot to homestead. To them, the salty lake smell is probably just air.

The Mormon woman and my mother are about the same height and they both have curly hair that poofs around their ears. But the Mormon woman seems so much bigger than my mom—and not just because my mom’s petite. This woman seems to absorb the support of all these family members, blood relatives or not. Together, they can afford to spend an evening shivering and searching the field for a dog, though they live in the country and have probably lost pets to cars before. If Stef had a pet that was lost and possibly wounded, I’d help her search for it—if I didn’t live two thousand miles away, if she called me. But there’s a good chance Stef would go it alone, try to stay tough. I’d want to do the same thing, to act like an adult. We’d ask our parents or husbands for help, but not a dozen people. Who would we ask?

I wonder if I’d be expected to brush off killing animals if I had so many people around, all of us living under a golden canopy of godly affection. There’s a Mormon church down the street from my house in DC. I’ve always felt very glad it was there. If I had an emergency, I’d be more likely to call that church than some of my DC friends.

The Mormon woman and daughter come up to me and my mom. “You know,” says the woman, “You’ve been helping us look for a while. And we’ve got so many people here now. You can take off, if you want.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” I say. “I don’t mind staying and searching, really. I feel so bad.”

The woman smiles, charitably, like the missionaries at Temple Square. “It’s really okay. You’ve done so much. Most people wouldn’t do this.”

“We really appreciate it,” says the daughter, her long dyed-blond ponytail blowing like the grass in the field.

“Maybe we should go,” says my mom. “You can go to the party.”

“Are you going to a costume party?” the woman asks. I nod. “Oh, that makes sense. We were wondering.”

 

At 7 a.m. the next morning, I am sitting on the plane waiting for it to take off, imagining the Lake’s amoeba-like shoreline outside my window, invisible in the dark. Last night, in the enormous house with thin walls, they all teased me for freaking out so much about the dog. I didn’t say anything, just took it until they started talking about their mortgages. I was still so worried about Tizzy that I couldn’t finish my beer.

Now I notice a text message on my phone, sent five hours ago. It is from the dog’s family. It reads: We found her! She is fine. She was under the porch the whole time! Thanks for staying to look. You’re a sweet girl.

The plane takes off as the sun breaks over the Rocky Mountains, and I wish that the family knew about my job and life in DC, about my travels around the world, about my responsibilities and boyfriends all the other grown-up things I am. All the things that are really just accessories to the animal-loving child just a screech of the brakes from the surface. But I know that even if the family were aware of my life, they wouldn’t really care. They know that they have each other, Jesus, and even a little dog, safe and sound. They don’t need to know anything else. 


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