A chunk of ash-blonde hair, not yet white like the rest, is matted to Willa’s perspiring forehead. Her body is pasted to the damp sheet that’s pulled off the bottom corners of the sofa-sleeper, eliminating the soft barrier between her bare calves and the rough mattress—she must have been thrashing in her sleep again. She does that when she travels. Her husband, Riley, is standing over her. “There’s a diner down the road. I’m going for fresh coffee,” he says, banging his elbow as he turns in the narrow walkway of the motorhome. “Don’t feed the goat,” he yells, slamming the door behind him. It sticks.
Late July Idaho sun filters through heavy sienna tapestry curtains hanging over the long, wide, high windows, creating an orange haze in what the user manual refers to as the family area.
“Homes don’t come with user manuals,” she’d said, six months ago during dinner at her favorite Italian restaurant. She thought they were celebrating her retirement from the hospital. Thirty-seven years as a pediatric nurse. Most days she thinks she can handle anything.
Without asking if she’d like to consider anything else on the menu (the way they’d practiced in counseling) Riley ordered Chicken Marsala for two. Then he pulled out a glossy brochure and suggested they invest a large portion of her retirement funds into a Winnebago—the one on page five with an extra-wide blue awning—so he can gut fish in the shade by the lake.
She’d hoped for a year in Europe. Her best friend, Bethany, spent nine months lying on a Mediterranean beach with her third husband last summer. She’d never seemed more vibrant. Willa wants to exude vibrancy, or at least feel it. She can barely remember the last time she felt a jolt more powerful than touching a doorknob after rustling her feet in the carpet.
There was an attempted tryst with one of Riley’s colleagues fifteen years ago. During the last summer they’d taken Holly, their only child, to the lake. But Holly poked a hornet nest with a stick and swelled so much from stings, the trip was cut short by an emergency-room visit. Willa feared her daughter’s suffering was punishment for her—Willa’s—attempted betrayal and never returned any of his subsequent calls.
Likewise, the summer before that, when the faded red shed in their backyard burned down—firefighters determined the likely cause was a clogged kerosene lamp. But Willa knew what to really account for the fire because it happened the summer that Riley had been spending a considerable amount of time at the recently-divorced neighbor’s house, attempting to repair her “shoddy-plumbing.” Willa had seen the two of them running through the backyard partially clothed just before flames blew out the shed window and completely overtook the structure.
“You’re overreacting,” he said. “Her faucets are nothing but tin.”
“Then tell her to call a damn plumber!”
Willa never used expletives. She planned to leave Riley. But she wanted to finish raising their daughter in an unbroken home, so she settled for counseling that ended up more focused on her than Riley.
“You need to assert yourself, Willa,” the therapist had said after only two sessions; just before he instructed Riley to ensure she had an “accepting” environment to do so. But acceptance wasn’t the issue. Riley was so preoccupied with his projects and staying on schedule, she could have painted peace signs all over her body and danced around naked singing folk hymns and he wouldn’t have noticed as long as dinner was on the table by five. Highly focused was her mother-in-law’s term for him. “He came home from the war that way—did him good,” she often muttered. Fixation was more accurate. And when something got that intensity of attention, he would immerse himself until life consisted of nothing but, which is why Willa cried when he handed her the motorhome brochure.
“I just want to see the country I risked my life to defend,” he pleaded through her blurry gaze.
“I know,” she whispered. “I know.”
Two weeks later, she signed the check withdrawing enough from her retirement account to purchase a more affordable, used version, of the motorhome in the brochure. Then distracted herself with projects, like sewing the curtains that are now causing the orange glow reminding her of a similar effect caused by the lava lamp in her daughter’s dorm room at Berkeley—where the remainder of Willa’s retirement funds will go.
She sits up slowly—unsteady because of the incline Riley had parked on the night before. She scoots off the mattress and braces herself against the olive-plaid, textured wallpaper, making her way to the kitchenette. She ties back her thick course hair, soaks a paper towel in a puddle of melted ice in the cooler and dabs it on the back of her neck. Setting a small cutting board on the countertop, she pauses to glance out the window.
The motorhome is parked in a chalky-dirt lot just off the side of the highway. A small, white, female goat is tied to an electrical post. Long, dirty, knotted curls hang from her stomach. A torn cardboard sign is stapled above her. Two lines of text read, “FREE GOAT / NO MILK.” Willa pulls a lukewarm head of lettuce and two carrots out of the refrigerator that smells like epoxy and Freon. She chops and peels, filling a plastic ice-cream bucket with green squares and orange curls. Picking up her favorite coffee mug to bring along to the diner, she slams the door behind her.
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