Photography by Gregg Campbell
Grandma Dori (who walked barefoot over the mountain with a flock of turkeys when she was five) died at dawn on New Year’s Eve day, ninety-six years old, wrapped in a quilt on the porch of her mobile home down along the Cowlitz River. She died with an unlit Marlboro 100 stuck to her lip, having just realized she’d left her lighter inside. The future clear in sight, she opted to remain behind.
Her body was discovered by her great-grandson Eli, twenty-two, who had been up all night smoking meth with his cousins, revving minibikes, and rapping into the karaoke PA by the half-finished deck on the far side of Dori’s yard. Eli had called out to his great-grandma upon seeing her, hoping to use the indoor bathroom. He mounted the steps, crashed slowly into the fact of her death, like a boat into a rock. An innocent creature, he found and lit one of her cigarettes, used his own lighter.
“Hey,” he called across the yard, to everybody, anybody. “Hey.” His cheeks wetting. “Hey!”
His fellow revelers stirred where they dozed around the firepit. His Uncle Kenny (who was actually a year younger than him) crawled from beneath a parked jeep, red-eyed and face-swollen, silver cross outside his shirt, to find his nephew standing heartbroken beside Dori’s little body. He rummaged for Dori’s phone in her quilt, dialed 911, and, seeing Eli’s, took and lit a 100 for himself.
“Yeah. No, yeah,” he told the dispatcher, regarding her body as he smoked. “I’m thinking we’ve missed the window for any, you know, heroic measures.”
The ambulance arrived an hour later, navigated the potholes in the road as gingerly as it did the crowd already gathering outside, people in bathrobes and beach sweatshirts, hunting jackets and shower slides, relations and friends and nemeses, all craning their necks in the morning fog of Dori’s road. They made way for the ambulance only begrudgingly, its mute sirens mixing with the puddled reflections of Christmas lights still illuming other homes, Christmas trees lit in their windows. Dori’s own tree stood dark in hers, uncanny in the manner of unlit Christmas trees.
“Somebody plug in the goddamn tree,” begged Dori as she walked hunched among the living, exiled from her home by death. “Or at least turn on a goddamn light in there!”
100 stuck to her lip, she petitioned all she saw for a light but only the children and dogs would acknowledge her until Brooklynne (one of her teenaged grand-niece’s black-eye-liner friends) did hold a flame to her cigarette, and Dori thanked her, dragging it to light as the chasm between the dead and the living yawned at last full wide and was traversed thereafter only by the smell of cigarette smoke and the sound of Dori rapping on the windows.
“I guess I’m the only one with a key,” announced Bea (Beulah really, Dori’s neighbor and cousin by marriage) once the ambulance had departed and the crowd failed to disperse. “Lord knows she couldn’t trust those boys out front,” she said as she unlocked Dori’s door, “not in times like these.”
Bea opened the door and released the crowd into Dori’s home like the spillway on the dike sometimes opened to release runoff into the Cowlitz on stormy days. She heard someone call it “odd, don’t you think?” that Dori would have locked the door behind her if she had just come out to smoke. Bea crossed herself in disgust at this, said, “Now what the heck is that supposed to mean?” but everyone only looked away, and Bea narrowed her eyes as she dug in Dori’s cabinets alongside the other women, repeated only that you really couldn’t be too careful, “not unless Dori wanted her TV to wind up in the pawn shop again, Alyssa!”
The women pulled sausage soufflés and cinnamon rolls from Dori’s Deepfreeze, preheated the oven and plugged in the coffee urn. The men turned on the TV. Windows steamed and the front door swung with the arrival and departure of souls. The house filled with sounds and smells that made everyone nostalgic for a remembered past, a time as recent as just a few days ago. Chris, ninety-one, Dori’s baby brother, patrolled the front room with all the zeal of his time as an MP in Japan, accusing family he didn’t like of being the source of the cigarette smoke everyone smelled.
“I will not have it,” he said as he shouldered through the crowd, performatively sniffing the air, “barbarians, you’ll not defile this home,” even as the smokers, to a one, had all apparently kept their habits outside where their steaming breath mixed with their smoke and it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began. And Chris soon joined them.
Alcohol appeared, inevitable as mushrooms: Liquor Barn rum and brandy discovered in the laundry room and poured into coffee cups, tallboys and Fireball shared around the unfinished deck where the young people squatted and the rain-damp logs smoked in the firepit. Music mumbled from the karaoke speakers, vague Sinatra, incidental and barely audible over the ambient noise of the spontaneous wake.
“Been years since she’d seen a doctor, of course.”
“What’s a doctor gonna tell Dori, who walked barefoot over the mountain with a flock of turkeys when she was five, who ate bacon every morning and smoked cigarettes all day—”
“You heard she locked herself out? Or somebody did . . .”
“Now now, you’re the third person to mention that . . .”
“Frankie said it first,” said Alyssa. “She predicted this whole scene out by the fire when we was all over here Christmas, how many folks there was waiting on Dori to get her ticket punched. More than some would care to say.”
“Eli’s the one who found her.”
“Eli couldn’t find a hole in his pocket. I heard those boys just took her cigs and stood around. And then those ladies in the kitchen . . .”
“Ruth knew right where that booze was . . .”
(Ruth had hidden it there some five years ago, unbeknownst to Dori, hidden it in particular from her husband, who nevertheless succumbed to it, and died.)
Out by the firepit, Dori kicked over tallboys and blew smoke in people’s faces, her 100 endless now, every smoker’s dream. She looked to the east where the sun supposedly rose and we cannot know what she saw, then back towards the house, her house, where she saw Uncle Kenny sneaking out through the side door of her home, cardboard box in his arms, Bea treacherous behind him, guilty looks on both their faces. The fire blazed to life, tallboys flew, and everyone gasped as a pile of old deck timbers avalanched, nearly crushing Alder, the blind roofer who lived down the road and whose unleashed dogs frightened everyone.
“God— fucking— ,” cussing out the wood that had nearly sent him on to join Dori. “Just what is the deal with this goddamn deck anyways?”
The deck had been a birthday present for Dori from the uncles half a century ago, back in the ’80s, “—but then either Chris had had his stroke, or maybe it was JP’s divorce—”
“Feels like they stained the wood,” said Alder. “Lot of this is still good. The ’80s, man,” he said. “That’s a goddamn shame.”
Squatting drinking nearby, it struck Eli how right Alder was: it was a goddamn shame. He imagined Great Grandma Dori looking out over the abandoned project of her deck lo these years, and the idea brought him to tears (he had cried easily all morning) and he rose then, and crushed the empty tallboy in his hand, threw it in the fire, and declared, “We should finish this fucking deck right now. Today. For Grandma.”
And so the work began. Tools materialized. Alder’s table saw appeared on sawhorses as an air compressor (for the nail guns) roared to life. New beers were cracked and hats straightened as the young men dove grateful into the project once abandoned by their fathers, hangovers dissolving into a happy crossfade of day-drinking and work. They measured, cut, and framed up boards with casual skill, joked and boasted about method and technique. Many in the crowd praised their industry, and the young men basked in this rare approval. The volume and flavor of the music from the speakers adjusted to match their tastes. The deck began to grow, their progress visible from where the color of the boards changed, and, in even just two hours’ time, was already closer than ever to achieving its original intent: connecting the house porch to the firepit across a yard of weeds and ash and skree.
“My my, what’s all this?” asked Fr. Damien, approaching on foot as he’d had to park two houses down.
“They’re finishing the deck,” said Brooklynne.
“Indeed they are,” he said, joining her along the edge of the yard. “Indeed they are.”
And together they watched. Brooklynne asked him if he was there to do the last rites, or whatever. She told him the body was already gone.
“No, no,” said Fr. Damien, “I’m just here to be available for family. That and, to be honest, there’s something I promised your grandma I’d check on. Something inside.”
Brooklynne said that Dori wasn’t her grandma, or her great grandma, or any kind of family to her. “I’m just Riley’s friend. My mom lives one street over.”
“Forgive me. Dori’s family is so big. All these people, so many lives touched . . .”
“Yeah,” said Brooklynne, and she watched him sideways in consideration.
Two young men tumbled together from the deck, laughing and wrestling over one of the nail guns. Alder’s dogs descended barking.
“Would you care to join me inside?” asked Fr. Damien.
The priest navigated the sea of bodies within, clasped hands and said names. Some hailed and toasted his approach—“Father!”—others collapsed weeping in his arms. He listened to them all, nodded and touched their shoulders, and yet he never quite stopped moving, trending ever towards some destination. And Brooklynne followed close behind him, before the path he made could close.
They found Ruth in the kitchen, Dori’s eldest and only living child.
“Here you are, of course,” said Fr. Damien. “Always serving, ensuring that others have enough.”
Ruth, still six feet at seventy-eight, rinsed out cups and microwaved dishes, did not cease to move as she spoke with Fr. Damien who pursued her with invitations to vulnerability. Ruth would talk only logistics.
“This crowd is going to turn if we don’t keep feeding them,” she said.
“I remember losing my mother,” the priest said. “To this day, when I make her Pentecost chili—”
“We’ve got two dozen pizzas coming in an hour,” said Ruth. “Does the church have funds?”
“There are funds,” he said, eyes closed nodding, bites of lemon bread in his mouth. “The church has humble funds. For pizza.”
Brooklynne took her own two lemon bread slices and headed for the spare room down the hall: Dori’s office. She knew the house from the summer Dori had reluctantly agreed to watch her and Riley while their moms worked at the cannery—long, hot, dull afternoons, oppressed by the smell of wisteria and ashtray. Dori mostly treated children like adults she did not care for but she had sometimes called them to the office to have the girls read aloud to her from the various articles and correspondences she archived there. There were clippings and letters and postcards and photographs, all labeled and annotated in Dori’s cramped, right-angled hand, snapshots with their subjects’ names sharpied directly onto their bodies (Frankie, Chris, JP blonde wife), date and weather notes on the back (Easter ’81, snowed all day before), newspaper articles, clipped and interpreted, the same clinical tone used for profiles of regional success stories (went to Dryer High (I think), met at gas station—very nice!) as for movie star obituaries (Born in Wyoming, respected by John Wayne. Will be deeply missed).
Brooklynne found a clutch of people already perusing these files, reading aloud from a box where Dori had kept xeroxes of a certain kind of letter she’d apparently written often, to a certain kind of famous person. She saw piled in this box, she knew, letters to congresspeople, proposing civic projects and constitutional amendments; letters to talk-show hosts, suggesting gag bits and skits; letters vaguely directed to the heads of quasi-fictional institutions, TV characters; effusive, expressive letters, addressed to a stranger every one, and yet to some she wrote many. She offered them gifts: amateur geological surveys, treatises on local history, maps documenting how the river’s path had changed over decades, hand-drawn. The people Brooklynne found in the room held these letters with the tips of their fingers, read Dori’s words aloud, incredulous, like characters reading the killer’s note in a horror movie.
Brooklynne did not share their experience. She picked a sheet at random, immediately recognized it as Dori’s 1981 letter to Johnny Carson, pitching a segment where Johnny would visit those impacted by the then-recent Mount St. Helens eruption.
Some of these people have lost all they had, she wrote. Loved ones, furniture. Perhaps you could prank them all somehow, for your show. Then award each a large sum of money. This would transform lives!
Oh dear, oh no,” came Fr. Damien’s voice from the corner of the room. “Excuse me?” he said, addressing the room. “This cabinet here: what has become of the contents of this cabinet? Does anyone know?”
Brooklynne knew the cabinet had, until recently, displayed Dori’s prized collection of porcelain California Raisins figurines, all of which appeared now to be gone, missing, the cabinet door unlatched and open.
“Do you know what’s become of these?” he asked Brooklynne. “Of Dori’s little raisins here?”
“Well,” said Brooklynne, “we broke one of them one time, when me and Riley were little. We weren’t supposed to play with them, but we did. Then we broke one of the raisin’s legs. And then we got scared and buried it in the yard.”
Fr. Damien looked at her. He straightened his collar. “My child,” he said.
“Do you think she knew?” asked Brooklynne, letter to Johnny Carson in her hand, tears twinkling in her eyes. “Do you think she was mad?”
And Fr. Damien put his arm around her, and he whispered pronouncements of remission over Brooklynne’s dyed-black hair, assured her that she was forgiven, that Dori held no grudges (though she’d died furious with at least a hundred people).
“Why are you looking for the raisins?” Brooklynne asked.
“Well,” said Fr. Damien, “truth be told, Dori believed that there were those among us here who coveted these porcelain raisin figurines. And she once asked me, as a favor, if I wouldn’t come and collect them when she died, and protect them, from a certain neighbor in particular, apparently. But it appears I am too late.”
A cheer arose outside then as, simultaneously, the deck was finished and the pizzas arrived.
Ruth’s face appeared in the doorway. “Father,” she said. “The funds.”
“Brooklynne said she’d heard about the turkeys but confessed she’d never understood what it meant, that she couldn’t picture herding turkeys”
The crowd assembled itself without instruction in two lines passing efficiently on either side of the sawhorse tables on which the pizzas steamed. Chris stood at the head of these, hands on hips. No less than thirty two-liter bottles of soda were opened. The music turned up and the fire grew taller.
Brooklynne and Fr. Damien ate together in the blue-gray dusk. The priest sipped a tallboy. Children ran laughing up and down the newly completed deck. All agreed it was a work at which to marvel, fine and level, edges rounded to smooth its snaking path across the yard. As the crowd ate, Chris and Ruth were invited with great ceremony to tour the deck, from the house porch to the firepit, to examine its craftsmanship. Chris stomped with pleasure at its sturdiness, and Ruth even smiled, firelight upon her face.
“Father,” said Brooklynne.
“Yes, my child,” said Fr. Damien.
Brooklynne took another bite of pizza, chewed and swallowed, then told him about how earlier that day she’d met Dori’s ghost wandering in the crowd outside, asking for a light for her cigarette, and how Brooklynne had given it to her, cupping the flame against the breeze. And Fr. Damien nodded. He said he was not surprised to hear this.
“She was quite a woman, as you know,” he said. “You’ve no doubt heard about the turkeys. How they herded the turkeys over the mountain when she was a girl. Or some such thing.”
Brooklynne said she’d heard about the turkeys but confessed she’d never understood what it meant, that she couldn’t picture herding turkeys—wouldn’t they just wander off? Never mind doing so barefoot over a mountain.
“And which mountain was it? Where did she come from? Where did all these people come from?” said Brooklynne. “They never say.”
“Hmm,” said Fr. Damien. “I always thought Dori’s people came from Idaho. Or perhaps Wales. But your point is well taken.”
The evening cooled as the sun set and the last three pizza pieces congealed in their boxes. The party raged on, a true party now, music loud enough to rattle windows (or was that Dori?), but softened in style, more horns and backup singers now, wedding music. People and shadows danced. Eli and several others went off to smoke meth on the river levee (the levee made from the ash of the ’81 eruption) where they found, as if set there for them, a cardboard box filled with Dori’s porcelain California Raisins figurines, each wrapped to travel in paper from Dori’s office.
“Holy shit, it’s Great Grandma’s raisins!” said Eli. “Fuck are they doing out here?” And he and the other young men knelt around the box, knelt but, following Eli’s lead, did not touch them. And Eli wept again, high and deeply moved upon the levee in the night because he felt that Dori had once again chosen him, and this gave him hope that he might not be all bad, that something good might yet lurk within him. As indeed it did, alongside other things.
“Hey,” called a voice farther down the bank. And the young men looked to find Uncle Kenny, muddy, shirtless and shivering, his forehead bleeding, but otherwise calm, silver cross sparkling in the dark where it bounced against his bare chest. He seemed not to notice the box, held his hand out for the pipe.
“Anyone seen Aunt Bea?” he asked.
Bea limped at that moment into the yard, moaning and disheveled, parting the crowd. She shouted for attention, for the music to be turned down, claimed to have only just survived being attacked—“Assailed!”—by some cigarette-smoking demon from beyond the world, that it had pursued her up and down the river’s banks for hours, “a terrible ordeal,” she said, “I feared for my life—my very soul!” as she raked the caking mud from her hair.
“Kenny was there. He saw it,” she told them. “He was helping me with something. Where is Uncle Kenny?”
“What were you and Kenny doing?” a familiar voice asked, and Bea growled with frustration, balled her geriatric fists.
“Why must everyone in this family be so suspicious?!” she said. “I unlocked the door!”
Ruth and Fr. Damien led Bea inside to get cleaned up as the music rose once more. It was New Year’s Eve. People drank and talked and danced. Fireworks bloomed along the cold edge of the sky. As midnight approached, a trio of s’mores-sticky children were herded to the karaoke microphone at the head of the now-finished deck where, with minimal coaxing, their tiny, amplified voices counted all down to midnight. And when the new year came everyone cheered, and, for reasons that seemed unclear only later, all began to sing, and the song they sang was Happy Birthday, as the fire’s sparks climbed through the winter dark and the PA howled feedback, happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Dori, happy birthday to you.
And Dori heard this, if you can believe it, heard it not too far off, like the roar of a baseball game one has chosen not to attend. Her raisins safe, she traveled now, up the road and through town, down the highway and back the way she’d come. Traversing time as well as space, she walked the long, slow journey back to where her life began.
The sun rose as her ghost crested the mountain pass and encountered there herself, five-year-old Dori, her older sister Anne (dead of chicken pox a year later), and their mother Katherine, twenty-one years old and five-months pregnant with Chris. Around them strutted a hundred turkeys which the girls held sticks to herd but mostly used to prod each other, the turkeys huddling naturally together, lurching on and ever forward, oblivious.
Young Dori stopped short, squinted in the dawn to make sense of what she saw: a hunched old woman, oddly dressed, puffing mechanically on a cigarette, and marching in the opposite direction. Neither her sister nor her mother seemed to notice the woman, but the turkeys parted to make way.
And so young Dori (barefoot it was true, shoes paper-wrapped in her pack to keep them clean on her journey) watched in silence as the ghost of her future self passed before her, smoke-haloed, rude gaze locked on whatever forgotten secret towards which she pilgrimed. She watched until she heard her mother’s voice—“Dorine, mind that hen!”—and young Dori turned as instructed, checked the straying turkey, and continued over the mountain.