The Thanksgiving dishes sat piled and unwashed around the kitchen sink. The uneaten turkey remained on its bones, pan full of carcass and liquid drippings successfully shoved into the fridge between twin stacks of repurposed margarine tubs. Two kinds of pie were laid on the kitchen island, the homemade pear kind, cooling off, and the store bought cheesecake kind, defrosting. A package of paper plates and a red solo cup full of clear plastic forks sat beside them, everyone having agreed that this would be easier than doing any more dishes. The coffee maker sighed, though no water had yet worked its way upwards into the grounds, and the steam had only begun to bring the smell the rest of the way across the house, to the living room, where everyone had gone. Before any pie could be had or coffee could be poured, Peg had asked that everyone get together on the couch for a minute and get their picture taken
Nate sat at one end of the couch, looking to the left, over the laps of his eldest daughter, Dana, and his wife Peg, the girls’ mother. His eyes met Emily’s, the youngest of his two grown daughters. From her own place at the other end of the couch, Emily balanced her nine month old daughter, Arya, on her knees, a single hand cupped over the baby’s chest. Everyone on the couch, even the baby, was wearing sweaters, though this was only partially by accident.
Emily’s husband had been designated the taker of this first photo, the “one with everyone in it,” as Peg had put it when she initiated the whole operation a few minutes earlier. Sure, once this first photo was taken he could get on the couch with his wife and daughter, maybe even his parents- in law. But for now he stood in front of everyone, with his back to the bay window that looked out into the dark of the front yard, He had just rotated Peg’s cell phone the long way, centering the couch in portrait mode with his left hand as he gestured for the family to lean in closer together with his right. On the window-sill behind him lay his and Emily’s cell phones, waiting their turn in the rotation of the picture taking.
But the picture couldn’t be taken yet. Peg and Dana were looking forward, and though they both had pleasant enough looks on their faces, neither of their expression could be called a smile. The baby was fixated on a spot somewhere a few feet beyond the ceiling. And Nate and Emily were looking at each other, not even forward at all. So if he said anything, the first thing Emily’s husband might have to say would be something embarrassingly didactic, and enough to ruin any spontaneity in the moment. “Everyone look this way,” perhaps, or even, “Pretend that you like each other.”
And a compromise like that was no option at all. The resulting image would capture the first example of the family being together for a holiday in nine years. It would capture the first meeting between Nate, his wife and their first grandchild. It would be the first proper photograph of baby Arya at home, in the birthplace of her grandparents, there in the confluence of water parks, as nearby the coffee seeped, the pie waited, and the chicken dripping hardened into globs of fat within the Cuisinart.
At the time of that moment, the LeGranges seated together in their nuclear ideal on the couch in their sweaters, Nate lived in Ohio. The details could be split, and mention made of the moments of his life spent outside the state, such as his vacations to Michigan with his family as a boy, or his vacations to Florida with his wife and daughters as a man. But particulars like that are really only helpful for the kind of person who might, for example, be asked what they do and respond by saying something like oh, this and that, when they obviously knew what the other person meant. Such pedantic particulars were the currency of the type of person who puts effort into trying to be different. Nate was not this type of person, and he hoped he had raised his daughters not to be these kind of people, either. When someone asked him what he did, he always told them about his current profession. At the current point in time, as Nate’s eyes met those of his youngest daughter across his family’s many knees, this meant maintaining fiber optic cable connections for the Cincinnati Bell Telephone Company. And when people asked him where he was from, he always said Ohio, because that was the truth.
Nate’s youngest daughter, Emily, had been born in Ohio. But In the twenty eighth year of her life, as her eyes met her father’s across the couch, Emily lived in Chicago with her husband and nine month old daughter. Unlike that of her parents, the fact of Emily’s residency was dependent on timing, and so it could be said that she had lived in Ohio with her parents, in a motel with her family just outside of Orlando, Florida, in a bunk at Space Camp in Alabama, in one of two different inpatient psychiatric hospitals in Ohio, in a series of US Forest Service work sites in the southern mountains of Missouri, in a cabin just outside of Missoula, Montana, in a series of apartments, shelters, couches and bathrooms across that same state, or in one of three different inpatient psychiatric hospitals in Wyoming. These were, at least, the places that Nate knew about for sure. But minute distinctions like those would be the work of the same kind of person Nate hoped Emily had been raised to not become. Regardless, as Emily’s eyes were meeting her father’s on the couch, she lived in Chicago, and all those other non Ohio places were in her past.
In that moment of eye contact on the couch in their sweaters, Nate held within him the memory of the troubled times in Emily’s life, and a hope that they were over for good. These troubled times, to him, included those inpatient stays and Emily’s days of what Nate didn’t like to call homelessness, but pretty much was. They were times that he knew he had only received in pieces, and of which many other details lurked out there in her past, like horse flies at rest in a darkened lawn. So Nate also threw into that time of troubles all the days of which he could only speculate. This included all the time Emily had spent in the plains states, and especially the two anonymous years in which she had not contacted the family at all. Now, safely past what Nate considered these troubled times, he chose to read something reassuring in the expression on his youngest daughter’s face. He chose to see, in the way she was kind of angling the baby in his direction, some affirmation of this reassurance.
But the baby, his reunited family, his daughter’s eye contact, the sweaters, triggered in Nate’s mind an image of himself seated in the driver’s seat of his 1995 Ford Ranger. In that image of himself, he was looking to the right at Emily, who was then seventeen. Emily, in Nate’s memory, was looking straight ahead, through the pickup’s front window and out across a valley of then newly constructed office parks. Nate, in that same memory, was preparing to deliver a bit of advice he had put together for her, regarding his new appreciation for a type of traditional Japanese warrior called the Ronin. This memory was itself strongly related to what had been Emily’s then recent discharge from the second of two psychiatric hospitals in Ohio. This day, in the truck overlooking the office parks, followed six outpatient therapy appointments, a meeting with Emily’s psychiatrist, two phone calls home from the vice principal of her high school, and a nine hour period when her whereabouts were unknown to anyone in the family. Thirty six hours before the moment that contained the memory, Emily’s mother had returned with her from the therapist’s office and plunked her keys down in the ceramic seashell on the sill beneath the bay window. She had responded to Nate’s question of how therapy had gone by telling him that maybe he could think of something, because Emily wasn’t listening to her anymore and that so-called therapist wasn’t doing anything either. Emily had looked up, her face half obscured by her hand, her knuckles bent to deliver the quick of her nails to her front teeth. That night, Peg suggested to Nate that it was up to him now, because she felt like she had really tried everything.
This was not, and had never been, a feeling that Nate shared about his daughter. Rather, he felt that not enough had been tried, and that perhaps if something had been done differently, the jagged line of Emily’s life would have long ago straightened. He carried this belief with him at the time considered ‘now’, sitting on the couch on the night of Thanksgiving. But he had possessed it as far back as the day of that memory, sitting in the 1995 Ford Ranger looking at his daughter as she looked out across the office parks. Thirty six hours after receiving Peg’s ultimatum, as he prepared to deliver a speech about the Ronin, Nate would think that not enough had been tried to motivate Emily towards college and a profession. He would think, as he prepared to tell her about the Ronin, that this information would inspire her to succeed in her life, if not in the way that he considered important, at least in a way that she did.
Six months after that day above the office parks, Emily would call the house phone from Missouri to notify them that college wasn’t happening right now, because first she was going to become a wildland firefighter. Peg had received the news first, saying nothing before handing the phone to Nate to allow Emily to tell him herself. He had wished her well, and told her only that he hoped she would be safe. He kept to himself what he was thinking then, that not enough had been tried, and that perhaps it had been that very speech he had given about the Ronin that had actually inspired her to wander, and do all the things he hoped she knew better than to do. We could have tried something else, Nate would think again five years later, when Emily’s phone number stopped accepting calls. We could have tried something else Nate would think over the next two years, every time one of the letters arrived in the mailbox from the hosptials in Wyoming, notifying Nate that someone on his insurance plan, Emily, was receiving inpatient psychiatric care.
On a winter’s night in the middle of Emily’s jagged years, Nate would slip out of bed and go to the garage, into the driver’s seat of his 2004 Ford F150 XLT, this new truck having years ago replaced the Ranger in which he had told Emily about the Ronin. He would spend two hours at war with this thought, alternately convinced of and defiant towards all the possible other things that could have been tried, but never quite working up enough reason to press the button on the automatic garage door opener and begin the drive to the hospital in Montana listed on the insurance notice, to pick his daughter up and drag her back home.
Nate would feel that something else could have been tried again, sitting on the couch preparing to smile, on Thanksgiving, in his sweater, as he made eye contact with his youngest daughter. He had, up until this point on the couch, never asked his daughter how she felt about his never having come to get her when she was lost inside the western plains. He had called her number every Sunday night since she went off to Missouri, and this included the years her phone did not accept calls. But he had never told her this, thinking it would have seemed too much for her, the idea of her dad sitting in the dark as the weekend faded, trying once again to reach her, listening to the pre-recorded voice informing him that the number was inactive. He did not wish her to imagine him as he had been, sitting there on winter nights with the weather channel on mute, waiting to find out if it was below freezing in Wyoming.
When she was seventeen, Emily had announced to her parents that she wasn’t going to go to church anymore. This was sometime around the day Nate took her to the space overlooking the office parks to tell her about the Ronin. But in the eleven years since the source of that memory, time had confused the sequence of events, and he could not recall in the days of his daughters’ young adulthood if that rejection had come before or after her second hospitalization. He could recall having accepted Emily’s news, though this acceptance left him no more illuminated as to the outcome for Emily’s soul, let alone what exactly she was going to do with herself for an hour every Sunday morning. For weeks, he had leaned over to Peg in church and asked what she thought Emily was doing. For weeks, Peg had told him to not worry about it. Nate still lumped this acceptance into the other examples of ways in which he could have parented her better. They had spanked Emily’s older sister when she was bad until the age of three. By this time, Emily was about a year old, and the experience of striking Dana had so affected Nate that he had never raised so much as a finger to his youngest. I could have spanked sons, Nate thought to himself, as he subjected Emily to an endless series of time outs, and as conversations with her mother went from the idea of possibly having another child to definitely being done with two. His three brothers had nine children between them, seven of them boys, and they had little problem disciplining any of them. This, they often told Nate, was maybe the reason none of their boys had spent a day in a psychiatric facility or taken a single neuroleptic, antidepressant, antipsychotic or mood stabilizer, all of which Emily had, at some point, tried.
Emily had been nineteen years old and in the midst of a trial of Rameron the last time she had visited home for Thanksgiving, though even then it was for dinner at Nate’s brother’s house. When someone complimented Emily on how her face was finally filling out, Emily had sighed and admitted she had gained fifteen pounds on her depression meds. Emily had arrived home on a break from her time with the forest service training program in Missouri, and so she spent the meal talking up her newly learned chainsaw skills to her uncles. The hosting uncle had even received a Stihl 250 for his birthday that year, and she went out to the garage with him and her boy cousins to look at it. Nate had still never told Emily the words he overheard between two of those uncles later in the night, one nudging the other and asking, “They let people like that use chainsaws?”
If Nate and Peg had created sons, he knew he would have had no issue with spanking them. But Nate and Peg had only created daughters. Dana, the oldest of these daughters, had traveled forward through life in a relatively linear direction. Her life was like a nice bar of segmented chocolate, of which they could break of snippets and share with approving friends and relatives. That Dana now apparently lived with a woman in a romantic relationship was also, apparently, ok to tell people these days, though Nate and Peg were waiting to do so until she announced this to them officially. Regardless, Dana had navigated life on a path that you could call untroubled. Their other daughter had, in a word, not.
That other daughter, Emily, had first been admitted into a psychiatric hospital when she was twelve years old. During the week she had been away from home, her parents had told everyone at church and at their works that she was at Space Camp. But then she came back, and had to go along with it, and tell everyone how much she loved Space Camp. So, four years later, when Emily was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for the second time, her parents asked her what they should tell people. And she had said just tell them I’m sick. But Nate had been terrible at lying ever since the ruse about Space Camp, so they had both just talked to as few people as they could until Emily got out. As they took it day by day, and the doctor upped the meds and the therapist did whatever it was they did, Nate stayed up late, thinking about his daughters. Not just the one sleeping in a hospital down the highway in Cincinnati, but the other, sleeping in her dorm at a university in that same city. One night he watched a show on the History Channel about the twilight of the Samurai. He had always known that Samurai came from Japan and wore their hair in top knots and fought with the most artfully constructed swords in the history of bladecraft. But that night he learned how, after hundreds of years of honor and devotion, the government forced the samurai to give up their swords, to cut their hair and wander their country in disgrace. When the program ended, Nate had turned off the TV and sat in the dark. Had the samurai seen it coming? He wondered. Had they crawled in bed beside their sleeping wives and made plans for the day of wrath?
Up late again the next few nights, with Emily still in the hospital, Nate went on the computer and learned from the internet that the Samurai had fought a series of last stands until their ultimate extinction. He thought of the loss of the America of his father, a time when men could speak freely and earned their bread by the strength of their hands. When he went about his day, sitting behind the wheel of his repair truck or sliding behind his desk to complete last minute paperwork, Nate often thought of what it might be like if he were a samurai. When he sat in traffic at a crowded exit, and watched other drivers passing by in the service lane. When people talked loudly in the Dairy Queen or cursed around children. He knew that he possessed a quality of heroism as taciturn and immediate as the ancient Samurai, even if mostly just made jokes and checked on the freshness of the margarine. And it was that quality of lonely heroism, which he felt he never had the opportunity to express, that came to him the night that Peg arrived home from Emily’s therapist, plunked her keys down in the porcelain seashell in the windowsill, and told him that she felt she had tried everything.
These had been the things on Nate’s mind as he drove Emily to the spot above the valley full of office parks. On the ride there, he had planned to tell her of all the things he knew that had passed. Of the physical things that sat upon the earth, of houses long burned down and the glory days of the Little Miami River, which was a local river that, being from that part of Ohio, she would have known about. He would tell her of the days of his father and the day his birthday fell on the same day as the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But instead he parked, sniffed, cleared his throat and said this:
“Em. I wanted to say. The other day I saw this program on the History Channel. Have you ever heard of the Samurai? Well, see, the Samurai lived in Japan a real long time ago. They were strong. And they were faithful. They served their master, and a code of honor that went all the way back to before the times of their fathers. And this went on for, god, hundreds of years. But then there was this thing called the Meji Restoration. And the emperor decided that all the samurai had to go, because the world was modernizing and they wanted Japan to modernize with it. So they said the Bushido had to turn in their arms. Give up their codes. They had to walk the earth with nothing. Just a lot of disgraced samurai without masters. They called them ronin. A ronin is a warrior at heart, and it’ll never not be a warrior. But it has no earthly home. It’s a lost spirit.”
Nate would wonder, at many times across the next eleven years, what thoughts his words had triggered in his youngest daughter’s mind at that very moment. At so many points of his life up until he looked at his daughter across the couch before her husband took their picture, Nate had reflected on the existence of people who drove to high places and looked down at little things below and thought about their lives. He knew that he was one of these people but he still was not sure if this was the way of his daughters. He knew there were, in his daughters and in his wife, vast territories of conflicting languages. In these territories, the same phrase was likely to be passed from one to another to another and then back to the source, translated and returned to the originator, changed. There were days when he came home from work and found Peg standing in front of the living room window, in the same room he sat in now, gazing into the patch of undeveloped farmland across the road. He would ask her what she was thinking, and she would sigh and tell him that she had already told him. Peg had experienced these days for as long as he had known her. But by the point in time when Nate sat with his family on the couch about the be photographed, there were more of them than ever.
Nate’s eyes remained on his daughter’s. He stopped thinking about that day above the office parks, and recalled that he needed to turn towards the camera and smile. But he wanted to know how his daughter felt, and he didn’t want to be the first one to look away. Just as he was trying to read meaning into his daughter’s expression, Nate hoped he was communicating something with his own. He wanted her to know that he saw her, and her baby and her husband, and he trusted her. Even if no one did, he knew she’d got it figured out. Even if it had taken her a while. Even if it was partially his fault for feeding her the idea of the wandering Ronin. He only hoped that the insights he had gleaned, from watching the History Channel or staying awake in church, were enough. At least enough to bring Emily back for Christmas. The alternative was too much for him, for anybody really. There were so many things to think about that you could spend your whole life sparsing out the details of a single moment. These details were physical, like the color of sweaters. They were temporal, like the fact of autumn, or biographical, like the fact of one’s profession. And they were internal, like memories. Nate figured that knowing as many of these details as possible might be the trick to understanding everything. And maybe if everything could be understood, even things as simple as the way people really felt about each other, then time could move forward without all those jagged adjustments in its course. From there, from that point of understanding, life would just arrive, the way it was supposed to. It wouldn’t matter what you’d said, on this day or any of the days before it. It wouldn’t even matter how you never knew if the thought behind your eyes was known to anyone but you.
Were Nate to consider the idea of his relationship with his wife or his daughters objectively, from an impossible point beyond the constraints of lived experience, he might have found something powerful enough to ease his mind for good. He often felt just on the verge of some fundamental breakthrough in the way in which he thought about his life, and suspected that there were things a person could do in life that might help them fully realize these breakthroughs. Maybe he would have been closer to that point if he had spent more time standing on the tops of tall things, like mountain ridges or even just the ridges above valleys full of office parks, looking down and thinking about life. But every time he ended up in one of those places, he ended up thinking of someone else instead. Maybe there were some people lucky enough, and far enough traveled, to seek out freely all the holy fonts. People resourceful enough to gather up some cup of fixing thoughts, to be smuggled back home through international terminals. Those resourceful people must have inherited airtight thermoses in which to carry the water of their souls. But Nate knew his vessel was, at best, a crumbling, wax paper cone.
It would have been nice to think this had been what his daughter had been doing during the times in her life Nate thought of as so troubled. That she had been cupping her hands beneath fountains that only suffering could find. That he had, in just being her father, imbued her with the proper vessel by which to carry water. There were thoughts that cured the wounds, and maybe some far off day might deliver one of these thoughts to him. But in that moment, Nate was sitting on the far end of his couch and about to turn towards the camera of his son in law and smile. His daughter looked happy enough, in spite of him. Or because of him. Maybe it wasn’t as he thought it was.
Adam Hofbauer’s fiction has appeared in The Eastern Iowa Review, the Emerson Review and Gold Dust Magazine and The Atlantic. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. He lives in Philadelphia, where he is an active member of the Backyard Writer’s Workshop, and his work has most recently been heard at the Creative at the Cannery and The Hatchery Reading series.