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Outside the Ordinary World


I’m pacing circles in the family therapist’s waiting room, trying to discern what my daughter is saying on the other side of that door. Hannah hasn’t spoken to me in days, but she seems to have plenty to say to a stranger: I can hear the muffled inflection of her voice, rising and falling with some thick emotion, her footsteps beating the length of the wood floor. I time my own gait to match hers --- step for step across the narrow, windowless room. Though I’ve never been taught to believe in purgatory, it must be a place like this, where we hold our breath while the stories converge. A land where we linger, mourning our nature like obstinate children whose parents warned them about the crack in the sidewalk, the fissure in the glass, the lethal fork in the trail.

The night my father died, a Santa Ana wind sent tumble­weeds as big as these waiting-room chairs across our yard. Lying on my bedroom floor, I heard the dry clapping of palm fronds, people’s trash barrels bumping down the street.

Around midnight, the electricity sputtered out. They say we often know the exact moment of a loved one’s passing: I remember sirens, and in the blackness felt my body expand as though it would f ill the house. The weight of my guilt pressed down like water --- massive, immovable.

I got up then, stood on tiptoe to reach the secret boxes in the upper corner of my closet and brought them, bulging with contraband, into the night. It was almost impossible to light the f ire pit in that swirling wind, but I kept at it, lighting match after match, holding each illicit letter firm until it caught, curled and blackened in the f lame, until the boxes were finally empty and bits of ash scattered and danced across our patio. Then I hopped the fence, joined with the wind.

I walked until an orange dawn bled over the San Gabriel Mountains, until I could no longer feel my feet, until my mother finally drove up beside me and told me to get in.

Until two days ago, I hadn’t spoken to anyone of that night.

Thirty years and three thousand miles from that history, I can’t believe it’s come to this --- pacing past the stacks of Parenting and Family Circle while my thirteen-year-old, on the other side of that door, makes her case against me. Don’t we all assume we’ll do it differently, not repeat the past? We believe with all our hearts that we can rise above the things they couldn’t. Sometimes, our beliefs blind us.


We’d been riding west in the green-paneled station wagon for the better part of three days when our cargo trailer came unhinged. We saw it overtaking us in the right-hand lane.

“Look, that car’s passing on the wrong side of the road,” announced my big sister, Alison, who at eight was old enough to know. “And look --- no one’s driving, and it’s going all wild!” We gawked, openmouthed, at the trailer shimmying beside us, swaying like a drunk. Fiery sparks kicked up where the metal hinge scraped hard over asphalt.

“Holy cow --- our things!” my mother gasped. “Our whole life, Don. It’s getting away!” Her hands fluttered to the half-open window, as if she might be able to reach out and stop the runaway trailer with her bare fingers.

We were driving on Interstate 80, well into Nebraska. A few miles back, my father had swerved left, to avoid three enormous hay bales bouncing off a truck. Apparently our trailer had come loose from the jolt, passed us on a decline.

Now it was a good bit ahead of us, threatening to rear-end a blue VW bus. My father veered into the right-hand lane behind the trailer and blared his horn until the bus jerked out of the way --- just in time, before the trailer would have smashed into it. After that, there was nothing to do but tail it and wait for the worst.

“Keep your distance, Don.” My mother’s voice was as taut as a telephone wire. “The darn thing’s going to crash. It’s going straight into that cornfield!”

“Cut the hysteria,” muttered Dad. Mom fell silent then, clenching her eyes and knitting her f ingers together while Ali and I, perched on the edge of the backseat, vied for the best view between our parents’ headrests. We hadn’t had this much fun since we’d left our apartment in Chicago. I slid my hot pink Calamity Jane hat back on my forehead and held tight to my sister’s knee.

We jostled onto the shoulder of the road, about twenty feet behind the trailer. Dust swirled around us, obscuring our view, and our father suddenly threw back his head and let out a high-pitched cowboy whoop, so unlike him that Ali and I burst into giggles.

As we watched the highway bend ever so slightly to the left, the trailer broke free from the asphalt and bounded over the shoulder of the road. It smashed clean through the corner of an old wooden shed before careening into a cornfield, dis­appearing from sight.

“My new bike’s in there,” Ali wailed.

“The wedding china,” whispered Mom, placing her hand on Dad’s thigh.

“Yep --- everything.” He slowed to a stop, the cloud of dust rising around us and filtering through the windows. Some of it landed on the skin of my bare arm, coating the thin blond hairs. Midday sun glared through the windows and we were quiet, each of us staring at the gap in the cornfield that had just swallowed our possessions. There wasn’t much: my wagon with the peeling red paint, our bulky winter clothes and photo albums, some treasures from Mom’s wealthy parents, Dad’s fishing gear and medical books. We’d left all the ratty, secondhand furniture behind, since it had come with the apartment. The idea was we’d buy all new stuff when we got West. We were starting over with a better house, better furniture, better climate, better schools. We were going back to California, where we came from --- like the song said --- in search of the good life, just as the pioneers and our grandparents before us had done. At least that’s what Dad kept saying. But this didn’t seem to comfort Alison any; she burst into tears at the thought of losing her new bike.

 “It’s all right.” Dad draped his arms over the steering wheel, the wild cowboy spooked out of him. “If we’re going to be pioneers, then we gotta be tough, right?”

I loved the idea of being a pioneer, or better yet, a cowgirl. I could imagine ditching the old trailer and the station wagon, donning a pair of chaps and riding a wild palomino f illy across every wide-open acre between here and Los Angeles. I didn’t remember much about California, being only two when we left, but I knew plenty about Annie Oakley and Dale Evans, and I figured a girl should be able to get her start in one of the westernmost states of the country.

“Well, we’d best get out and see what damage there is,” said my father, opening the car door. And then we heard the sirens.

Half an hour later, Ali and I sat on the bumper of the Ford watching as the tow truck hauled our trailer from the corn­field, as the police lights f lashed and spun, as the brick-faced farmer, flanked by off icers, barked words I couldn’t under­stand. He wanted collateral. There’d better be reparation. And why in hell hadn’t the chain been fastened on the goddamn hitch? His hands dove like angry crows around my parents’ faces until one of the policemen placed a restraining paw on his forearm. I couldn’t quite fathom all this fuss over a rickety old shed, a few dozen rows of corn. But clearly we were in trouble.

Dad gripped Mom’s bare shoulder. He stood weirdly erect in his blue plaid shirt; even so, he was scarcely two inches taller than her. We were fully insured, he insisted, squinting into the glare. He was terribly sorry. In their hurry to get on the road, he must have overlooked the chain. The tall off icer wrote things down while the other just stared at Mom, his gaze sliding over her green sleeveless sweater, down the slim length of her khaki pedal pushers. I could have sworn he even winked, after which Dad tightened his hold on her, the dark circles expanding beneath his armpits. I was pretty sure I’d never heard my father apologize before, and I elbowed Ali in the ribs, wanting her to take notice.

“At least they’re not arguing anymore,” she noted then sighed, nudging me back. “Move over, Sylvie --- you’re hogging the whole car.” She was in a better mood now, having discovered that her new bike was still intact, little pink basket and all. Our things had been spared, in fact, except for a few glasses and the wedding china. When Mom picked up one of the boxes, heard the faint tinkling inside, she’d bit her lip, eyelids fluttering, while Dad patted her wrist bone.

Now Ali hoisted herself onto the hood for a better view, and I wondered if she was right --- if the accident had put an end to our parents’ bickering. Perhaps this was why God allowed it. I was six, and still believed God was in charge, di­recting the show like some capricious old ringmaster ---  allowing this disaster but not that one. This was God’s Plan, I decided while Dad explained to the officers, pointedly massaging the back of Mom’s neck.

 “It won’t happen again,” he was telling them. “I assure you.”

Still, it didn’t take long for the bickering to resume once we were finally back on the highway, our dented trailer secured behind us. My mother argued, in her clipped, quiet way, that we needed a break, that we girls had been trauma­tized. The accident was a reminder to slow things down, she said, rethink our priorities. We ought to stop for some lunch, maybe end the day early and find a Travel Lodge with a little pool.

“It’s hot, honey. You’re expecting too much of them,” she continued.

“We’ll stop at supper time,” Dad said, reminding her the accident had just cost money we didn’t have, that we were now two hours off schedule, our budget blown to hell.

“There’s no need for language. The girls will pick it up.”

“And what are they picking up from you? That there’s money to burn? You know we can’t afford fancy motels --- not yet.”

“What about the park? You did promise.” She was whis­pering, as if she actually believed we couldn’t hear. Ali and I had started our own silent war in the back, over where the imaginary line between us was supposed to be. We’d moved on from gentle shoving and were grinding our knuckles, hard, into each other’s bare thighs. In the course of our short stint as “pioneers,” we’d learned how to practically kill each other without making a sound --- stomping each other’s de­fenseless toes, suffocating one another with our blue bears. We knew if we got wild, made too much noise, we were asking for it. Usually, it was me who got it. Maybe because I was easier to yank out of the back, throw against the hot metal side of the car. Two days back, in Iowa, I’d gotten a mouthful of roadside dirt for calling Ali a farty old pig’s ass. So now I relented, slipping out of the game as it got too rowdy. But Mom wouldn’t relent.

“It was all this rushing that got us into a fix.” Her shoul­ders were creeping up around her ears. “Besides, you prom­ised them.”

“That was before we had to buy a damn shed.

“For heaven’s sake, don’t curse.”

“Why didn’t you use some of that feminine charm to get us out of a ticket?”

“I haven’t a clue what you’re referring to.”

“I mean, if you’re gonna flirt, may as well make it useful.”

They ended by falling into a bulky silence, Dad drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, Mom heaving exhausted little sighs and turning her face to the window. After a while, she doled out stale peanut butter sandwiches and dill pickles without saying a word.

Outside the Ordinary World
by by Dori Ostermiller

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Mira
  • ISBN-10: 0778328899
  • ISBN-13: 9780778328896