Leaving Leaf River

by Hannah Kroonblawd

The dining room’s hardwood floor was waxed so mirror-like that Rebekah could see her face reflected off it. Mom had never put down a rug, thinking it too expensive or too stuffy or too much like Jenna Fairchild’s dining room, all cut glass and crystal. Jenna Fairchild was the epitome of what Mom never wanted to become,“too stuck-up to recognize what kind of place she was stuck in,” she would say, so wooden chairs slid dully across wooden boards at the beginning and end of each meal until each leg traveled in its own small valley. The realtor had advised hiring someone to sand and refinish the floor, “spruce it up a bit,” she’d said, so Rebekah had called one of Jeremy’s old friends from shop class and paid him three hundred dollars to erase those tracks, buff off thirty-five years to a layer of oak she’d never seen.

“See?” the realtor had beamed, “Someone is going to walk into this room and their jaw is going to drop and they’re going to fall in love. Those tall windows and that gorgeous floor, you know.”

It was what Rebekah wanted, of course it was: another person falling in love with this house, her house, her mother’s house, her once-upon-a-fairytale father’s house. Their house, tilted porch, lilac bush, weed patch.

“I know,” she’d told the realtor. “Of course,” she’d told the realtor. “Thank you,” she’d told the realtor.

There was, Rebekah knew, nothing else to say. Someone had to be thanked, comforted, told it was going to be all right in the end. She had said those things to someone.

More than one someone. Funny how no one seemed able to say them back.

***

Jeremy hadn’t been much help, except his recommendations of old friends who were still around and able to finish the renovations Rebekah couldn’t do alone. Jeremy had always been hands-off, a bit flighty. Even during their two-year overlap in college, they only really saw each other when it was time to travel home. Jeremy got a job in the Cities, brought his kids to Leaf River every couple of months to spend time with Mom, cook pretend spaghetti dinners on the tiny plywood play stove that had stood for thirty years in the corner of the kitchen. Liz made the trip up once or twice, but Jeremy usually just brought along her excuses.

“It’s how the office is,” he said one summer, sitting next to Rebekah on the porch swing while Mom and Izzy and Evan picked cucumbers in the vegetable garden. “It’s just this season, all the extra paperwork coming in. We can’t all be you, Beks, having so much time on your hands. Liz wishes she were here. You know she does.”

Rebekah did not, in fact, know, and she thought that kind of wish highly unlikely coming from Liz, but she also didn’t mind, not really, the here-and-gone nature of Jeremy’s visits. And then Izzy and Evan were in elementary school, and then Mom was gone. There wasn’t any sense for anyone to come up in the summer. Rebekah still spent Thanksgiving and Christmas at their house in the suburbs, but she felt like an interloper, like a pale spinster aunt in the corner of the parlor about to pull knitting needles out of her handbag, even if it was the Year of Our Lord 2019 and half the neighborhood was divorced. Instead of lending any kind of gentle middle-class normality to Rebekah’s presence, however, the only outcome of the divorce statistic was that it spurred on Liz’s matchmaking efforts.

“Guess who’s newly single, Beks?” Liz stage-whispered while washing dishes after the last family gathering. “Dan. Dan across-the-street, hot-dad Dan. You met him at Izzy’s spring recital—his daughter Lily is in ballet, too.” She pointed a soap-bubbled hand at Rebekah. “I can get you a date. Dan’s a good guy, bought a motorcycle last year, but the divorce was Kendra’s fault, not his. You’d at least get a good dinner out of it. God knows the last time you went out, but you don’t have to stay up in Leaf River. You can live a little, you know.”

Now that your mom is gone, the unspoken end to the sentence. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t said. Rebekah could hear the echo.

***

Once the decision was made, she googled getting an old house ready to sell. She read all of the articles: finding an agent, painting, decluttering. Tripped up on the “depersonalizing” stage, but managed to take all of the photographs down. Her parents’ wedding portrait, Mom holding baby Rebekah, Dad holding baby Jeremy and toddler Rebekah, five-year-old Rebekah holding three-year-old Jeremy, Rebekah and Jeremy on a trip to Otter Tail, up to their necks in sand,Rebekah’s graduation, then Jeremy’s. It was so easy to tell when Dad had left, when Mom was the only one to hold the disposable camera. One frame, he was there. The next, gone.

Small towns up north, she read in more than one article, are a hard sell unless close to a lake big enough for speedboats and jet skis and ice fishing. Wadena, the next-closest town, was mildly famous for the time a deer wandered into Wal-Mart and was tackled by a guy from Deer Creek in the pet supplies aisle. Wadena County, she read on Wikipedia, was the poorest county in Minnesota and one of the poorest in the whole United States. Rebekah knew this,of course, had learned it freshman year at the U when she realized her roommate had never heard of Leaf River or Wadena or a consolidated school district or a first-gen student. All of her college friends had grown up in suburbs with names like Victoria and Excelsior, gone to prom at country clubs or on riverboats, spent summers at the movies and their family cabins.

She never told them, those girls who always seemed so freshly pressed, that the closest Wal-Mart to her house was an hour drive away; that though the clubhouse at Wadena’s golf course had been renovated the year before, the senior prom committee decided, as it always did, to spend their budget on cheap beer, listed as “beverages: misc.” on the spreadsheet, purchased by someone’s older brother, and then smuggled into the locker rooms; that she’d danced to a burned-CD playlist in the high school gym and then slid into a pickup with Seth Mallaghan, who followed the line of rusted-out cars and farm trucks to Inspiration Point at three o’clock in the morning, a forty-five minute drive just to wait out the sunrise,the small blur of teenagers stumbling and laughing up the dark hill, everyone a little bit tipsy and a little bit sad and a little bit in love, even there, the poorest county.

***

The first time the realtor walked through the house, she let out a breathy sigh every other room or so. “At least you have that built-in,” in the kitchen. “Oh, replace that window, please,” in the back bedroom. “Better to just sell without the washer or dryer, I think. No one will want those,” in the basement. The realtor was from Wadena, a year or two behind Jeremy in school, married someone from Rebekah’s class, and had three kids who sometimes trailed along on her home visits. She had the choppy, dyed-brunette look of soccer moms from the Cities, trying to hide her white-blonde Scandi roots, be more than what she was. A new Jenna Fairchild, Rebekah had laughed to herself once the realtor had gone, then startled at how much she sounded like her mother.

Mom had been happy living out her life in Leaf River, even if it wasn’t a real town, barely a township, just the restaurant, the golf course, and the old schoolhouse. Rebekah didn’t mind Leaf River either, as long as the Internet connection held up. The week after her college graduation, they ran a cable out to the house, an upgrade that wiped Mom’s savings account. But that same week Rebekah got a remote job for a tech company in California. The best decision she’d ever made was her computer science degree from the U, and second best was applying for a job that she could do anywhere. That she could choose to do in Leaf River.

Jeremy and Liz thought she had all these empty swaths of time, that it was a self-imposed isolation or some kind of monastic hermitage. But Rebekah happened to have a knack for coding. She could sit down, write out Python and HTML and JavaScript, and have the project done in two months when it might take another coder three. This was due in part to lack of distraction. Leaf River was so quiet, with so little to do. Liz was half-right about Rebekah’s social life. But it was also the language of coding, the near-magic translation of it, building a system on a screen for someone else to use, to save someone’s life. Her specialty was mapmaking—GPS systems, satellite imagery, embedded directions. It became routine, just like everything else in life tended to do: driving into Wadena for groceries, taking Mom to get her haircut, pulling weeds, cutting the grass, stopping by the pharmacy for Mom’s medications, shoveling the walk to the garage, coding for an EMS system project, testing the route of a tiny ambulance across the giant grid of a city, rerouting, rerouting again.

***

“Leaf River,” the realtor said, “is listed as a ghost town. Kind of officially, if a ghost town can be official. If anyone reads anything online, they’ll probably be scared off, so I’ll list the address as Wadena. Then we can talk up the schools, at least, and the county seat. I’m doing my best, but I’d plan to be on the market a while, even with all the work you’ve done. This isn’t Minneapolis, you know. Or Duluth.”

Rebekah didn’t believe in ghosts, but sometimes she wondered. Even with the photographs taken down, Mom seemed to linger. Sometimes the garden would rustle, but no animals would emerge. She could sense Dad, too, though it was harder because she had to imagine him, no memories to rely on. Mom had never said much, just that he’d been a good father and a good husband and the spinout on Highway 71 in the middle of January was just that, an accident. But Rebekah guessed that he was the kind of father who would have helped her sand down the floors and brush out the stain.

It was Dad who bought the house in Leaf River after meeting Mom at a county-sponsored picnic in Wadena, Dad who hung the porch swing and planted the lilac tree. After Dad was gone and Mom started working at the county courthouse again, it was harder to keep up the house. And when Mom was sick and slowly getting worse, Rebekah didn’t put thought to anything beyond the front room where Mom sat and watched for cardinals and blue jays out the windows. The front room got the best morning light, the curtains always a bright white, the end tables always dusted, the TV a muted blue light in the evenings. Rebekah brought her computer desk out from her bedroom and put it against the wall so she could work and still be with Mom, turning every so often to look at the lace of veins on the back of her hands, her thinning hair on the couch’s armrest.

With the photos gone, the floor redone, the walls painted, the knickknacks packed away, it seemed like a different house. It wasn’t the house where Rebekah had grown up or come home or watched her mother die. More than once she’d woken up in the middle of the night and, on her way to the bathroom, had nearly gotten lost between the empty walls and the new light fixtures.

Everyone asked, whenever she went into town, what she was going to do once the house sold. Most assumed she would move to the Cities, live close to Jeremy and the kids, become one of those childless thirty-somethings who get tattoos and go on weekend vacations and drink wine from stemless glasses. But Rebekah hadn’t decided. She wanted to wait out the feeling that lingered the way Mom seemed to linger, that there was something left in Leaf River, something left to see or do or hear or brush up against.

One Saturday she went to the new brewery in Wadena with a few high school friends, trying not to think of a night out as being on her list of “last things” as if another box to pack, and Seth Mallaghan was working the taps. He pulled out photos of his wife and daughter, and they talked about how warm the summer had been. Rebekah told him that she still thought about prom, sometimes, when she felt particularly nostalgic.

“Why you’d ever want to think about our really, really bad dancing, Beks, is beyond me.” Seth set her drink down on the bar. “But you’re not wrong about Inspiration Point. I drove Ashley and Callie out for a little hike, and I was telling Ashley about that night, how stupid we were driving drunk out there. Half of us forgetting to turn on our headlights. But didn’t we feel free, or something like it? Like we mattered, at least to each other, at least right then.” Seth let out a laugh, shook his head. “I always start to philosophize at the bar. Tell me to shut it, please.”

But she would have kept listening to him talk like that, about that place, that night, for at least a little while more.

***

The last thing Rebekah did, once the Internet was cutoff, the boxes packed into the moving truck and the house locked, was drive over the county line into Otter Tail, past the fields waiting for harvest and the scattered swatches of blue lakes,and park at the base of Inspiration Point.

She didn’t need to climb it again. She didn’t even get out of her car. She just wanted to see it one more time, the winding path she’d last climbed in the middle of the night, wearing a pastel dress and sequined sandals, the hill covered in oak trees, tall and green and alive. The wood beneath the bark of those trees the same kind of wood as the shining floors in the old house, someone else’s someday, soon, no longer the ghosts’, no longer her own.

***

***

Hannah Kroonblawd is a PhD student at Illinois State University, where she teaches in the English department and studies Anthropocene poetics. A graduate of the MFA program at Oregon State University, her work can be found in Washington Square Review, Waters Deep: A Great Lakes Poetry Anthology, Puerto del Sol, and the Blue Earth Review, among others. Find Hannah on Twitter @hlkroonblawd.