Nothing Comes Back
by Susan Lloy
Sybil has never been good at letting go. Not her loved ones, not a pair of old shoes, not even a jacket she hasn’t worn in twenty years. So, when she arrived at her new abode she managed to drag loads of stuff that she knew she would never use and was left with the task of not knowing what to do with or where to store all of it. It is a small apartment and space will be problematic. Now that she is retired and free, she feels deflated and confined.
She had never been good at planning her life and fell into a dead-end job with a paltry salary in her early forties after travelling and changing countless meaningless positions. Retirement still seemed a long ways off. Yet, here she is, with scant money coming in from her pension and little savings. Dreams of travel and escape are far out of reach. As she stands with an unpacked moving box at her feet she thinks to herself; fuck… this is what it’s all come down to.
She has returned to her place of birth following forty-five years away and finds it hard to believe that she is actually here. She had always lived to escape this place, but here she is living in a section of the city she always despised. There had been no other choice. This corner of her pocket-sized world is the most affordable, but neighbors are in close proximity, balconies touch each other like shoulders watching a parade.
When she looks at her contemporaries she still feels young, though today, catching a glimpse of her reflection in the harsh afternoon light she knows she is getting on. She has one child, a daughter whom she rarely sees. Antonia, her spawn, has no intention of leaving the big city for a smaller one and isn’t planning a visit to her mother any time soon. They have always had a strained relationship. Not for any particular reason. They are like two opposite forces that repel instead of attract.
Antonia is an artist. A painter, who struggles and refuses to give up her dreams of becoming one of them. She believes she has it, even when gallery after gallery refuses to give her a show. Antonia is striking with an unusual red birthmark on the left side of her face shaped like a seahorse. Her mother always insisted it was a beauty mark declaring it made her special. But, Antonia never bought into it and the mistrust and difficulties began right there.
Sybil has never been what one would label joyful. Not as a child, not as a youth and not now in later life. Sure there had been good times, especially when she was tripping in the spring of early womanhood. Now everything seems flat. Expired. Occasionally, when she hears an old loved tune she will perk up. Dance about, remembering a time when things felt possible, yet when the song is finished she is left alone in the silence. A vacuum.
She doesn’t know how her world became this inconsequential. It is down to less than a handful of people. Because of this she has developed an unhealthy addiction to rummaging the Internet, searching out former lovers, classmates and foes.
Sybil lets out a sigh as she examines the unpacked boxes. She has an abundance of photographs. Some of these photos haven’t been looked at in years and she can’t remember some of the people’s names that are in them, but they remind her of a livelier time and this is why she keeps them. However, looking at them now she imagines if she dropped dead this very instant there would be so many things for Antonia to go through. She expels the thought from her mind.
The walls are thin here and she can hear the neighbors’ televisions and stereos. The one upstairs is a stomper and she can tell whomever it is wears shoes. She will have to have a word, explaining that she suffers from misophonia and could they not wear them inside. Sybil knows she will hate it here. She stands on her compact balcony listening to a brood of gulls call across the gray, drizzly sky.
One box contains a bundle of cards. Love letters from her ex – Antonia’s father. He is long gone, yet Sybil thinks Antonia will find solace in the words and perceive that she was created within a time of affection. Antonia was young when her father left. It’s part of her bitterness. Her dubiosity.
Sybil unwraps one of Antonia’s paintings. She is a figurative painter. It’s a self-portrait with a distorted face somewhat in the vein of Francis Bacon, her idol. It is disturbing to think that Antonia thinks of herself like this, but Sybil hangs it in a prominent spot with a wall all to itself. Her breathing is labored as she examines it.
Life has become small. Sybil isn’t on any social media sites such as Facebook. She has access though, from a time when Antonia often used her computer. It has become an unproductive habit. Looking for old lovers and people she has long lost contact with. Examining their lives, and partners. New kitchens, trips and what seem all the pleasantries of life. Sybil had let friends drop from her life. It seems like her life had been put on hold while others had moved on. If she reached out a reply would come, still it was her that had to do all the reaching. All those old friends in foreign lands had long forgotten her. Or had intentionally ignored her. It was if all the cozy worlds she once was part of had imploded and she was left with only a chill travelling her spine. Correspondence became painful, with the usual – same ol’ at the end of every Email.
She painfully organizes the apartment; however another purge will be necessary. A neighbor’s television bellows through the wall. As she lets out a long sigh, she ponders packing the whole place up and heading to the country. Somewhere rural. Close to the sea. An old magazine lies on the coffee table with a double-spread of the Grand Canyon displaying all its glory. The reds and rusts are warm and inviting and seem to say, what are you waiting for?
She doesn’t have money socked away for extensive travels, but a little for one special trip. Sybil had always wanted to visit the Grand Canyon and areas beyond. The desert. It was always near, especially when there was some commercial or film with its uplifted Proterozoic and Paleozoic strata and vividly-hued landscapes. Rivers, rapids, valleys with canyons and walls built of ancient rock. How breathtaking and humbling it must feel to stand within.
She has done her homework and knows it is a relatively short drive through from Vegas. Utah would be next heading to Zion National Park. She extends the invitation to Antonia to tag along, but her daughter declines insisting that she is immersed in a new series of works. It hurts Sybil. This tension between them runs like a fierce river. Unflinching and constant.
For the most part her clothes remained unpacked with fabrics hanging over opened boxes. She still holds on to items that are too small or too young. Nevertheless, she has kept them for her own unsound reasons, a trove of clutter and useless accumulation. She snatches up a flimsy top for the warm weather. Who knows? Maybe she’ll meet someone.
Her flight is the following week. She plans to stay one night in Vegas and make an early start the following morning. The itinerary is well coordinated and would usually take two and a half hours to reach Springdale in Utah, but she plans to stretch it out taking time for rest stops and scenic vistas. When she reaches her destination for the day, she’ll stay a night in Springdale and hike the following day to Weeping Rock in Zion National Park.
Sybil has done a little research and there is something about Weeping Rock that speaks to her. A kindred spirit, so she thinks. It isn’t merely the name, but also the photographs she has examined of the place, where the water continually seeps at the junction of two strata creating an arena of ferns, moss and wildflowers. An oasis on the side of a ridge. She imagines herself being able to breath freely there. Free of confinement and neighborly clamor.
Weeping Rock evokes a consciousness and awakens a part of her being that has been shut down. She feels that she needs a good cry. A release. And imagines she will get it there for the rock is forever wailing, as if its heart has been broken into a million bits.
Her flight is the following day. Most of the packing has been done save for a few boxes. She had put up shelves and arranged books. Hung favorite pieces on walls. It has begun to feel more like her, yet she didn’t see herself here. It’s as if she watches herself from a different sphere. As if she was a character in some film.
The heat assaults her as she hits Las Vegas. She has a place on the strip for one night at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino and heads directly to her suite via the hotel-airport shuttle. It is midafternoon and the sun hangs high in the sky, but there is plenty of time to explore the strip, have dinner and play a few slot machines before retiring. Her road trip will commence after breakfast the following day.
It is the first time in her life in a casino. She has fifty dollars to play with. Not a penny more. The minute she sits down she becomes annoyed. There is noise everywhere. From boisterous loud drunks to screaming bachelorettes, bells ring and lights blink. It’s all a bit too much. In spite of she thinks, what the hell, I might as well give it a go. And go it does, on the second try. Sybil pulls the lever and PANG, out comes a ticket with a barcode. I won!
Everyone claps and shouts. Some look on with disdain. Why not me? Sybil turns in her ticket for a twenty-four thousand dollar check. She can’t believe her luck. Not bad for a five dollar investment. She treats herself to a good meal at the casino restaurant and heads back to her room to tuck in for an early night.
She has rented a Volkswagen Bug Convertible for the trip. She wants the wind in her hair and sun on her face. All of her senses opened for unfamiliar awakenings. The car is being dropped off at the hotel’s entrance. It is a shiny dark bronze metallic. It will mirror the colors of the canyon. She has purchased supplies for the expedition such as water, sandwiches and a bottle of good wine.
Edwin Smith lives in Wasatch County, Utah on a ranch not far from Salt Lake City. Edwin prides himself on being a direct descendant of Joseph Smith, the forefather of the Polygamy movement. He is not a genetic heir, but offspring of one of his five adopted children, although proclaim has been impossible to prove. Edwin grew up in the faith. As far as he can remember his kin had practiced plural marriage, as does he with his eleven wives, twenty-three children and five grandchildren.
Edwin is in his early sixties and still possesses a good physique, takes pride in his appearance and is a member of the Utah Film Industry. He still works as a grip on films now and again.
He bought this ranch in the early eighties. By that time he had long given up the notion that the more the merrier bought one a ticket to a special spot in the celestial kingdom. No, by that time he simply enjoyed the idea that plural marriage was a good thing. Made a more interesting, spicier life for a man.
Most of his wives were sealed by traditional practice, although there had been no prophet involved. Two of his ladies came from the film industry for Edwin was quite the catch in his youth. The others were locals and an old school sweetheart and had been chosen within a time when he held close to the thought that more kin were the best route to heaven. Through time the group had adjusted to these changes and the departures from the rigid rules of the church, which they had been accustomed to.
Locals frowned upon them and called them the ‘Smithsters’ and thought of them more like a cult than an offshoot of the Mormon faith, who are their neighbors in all directions. Initially, they tried to make a go of it by subsistence farming. Producing cheese, baking their famous Smithster pies, but ranching is a tough trade and because most of the clan has film expertise, they sought out a different direction of income – producing soft porn.
As righteous as folks like to think of themselves around here and beyond, sometimes they need extra flavor added to the mix. Things become rigid and boring. Edwin found a niche in this market and made a tidy living from their film production company. Edwin and his two wives who sprung from film work had educated the others in distribution and marketing. Some were designated to costume design, while others dealt with the children and managed mealtimes and the overall daily goings on about the ranch.
Mostly all of them acted in the films in some capacity, or they subcontracted parts out advertising in open casting calls for adult films or by word of mouth.
Their porn is subtle: naked women bailing hay, selling baked goods at a country fair, frolicking in a haystack, the local sheriff putting on the cuffs.
It draws a special sort of clientele. Country folk and farmers. People seeking a refuge from the Bible Belt dogma, which is the norm for this belief-filled land.
Sybil enjoys her road trip and has taken in several panoramas along her route, but now she is in Zion National Park and plans to lunch in Springfield then hike the Weeping Rock trailhead. There are a multitude of places to eat along the Zion Park Blvd, but she settles in at The Spotted Dog Café and has a hearty meal of roast beef, mashed potatoes, grilled vegetables and coffee. She figures she will need it for the trail ahead.
Before she leaves, she writes a postcard to Antonia. Sybil likes this lost world of card sending. Now everything is encased within a phone. She imagines Antonia caressing the image with her paint stained fingers and lovingly placing it a special spot, thinking to herself; I should have gone on that trip. But truth be told, Antonia could care less.
Sybil enters the trail and begins her ascent. Edwin has finished a shoot. He is currently working on a series where multiples of sophisticated and often erotic robots act out individuals’ fantasies in a futuristic theme park. The location is not far from Weeping Rock and is a lovely spot that Edwin finds himself repeatedly drawn to again and again. Sybil has chosen it too, though she is enticed by unknown reasons. They are like two bodies that submit to the force of attraction like sun and earth, earth and moon.
Sybil reaches Weeping Rock and rests her bones on a bench overlooking a carved out valley. The weeping water cascades over hanging gardens, which are moist with lush vegetation. The sounds are gentle and the smells rich. There are few visitors today and Sybil is happy for this. She is alone save for one or two strays who stroll by every twenty minutes or so.
As she sits here she goes over her life. Antonia is her only kin. She wishes her late sister were next to her. Her ashes lie on a bookshelf in her new apartment. They say a loved one’s remains are a mix of many cremations. She hopes her sister is mixed with fun folk. Sybil watches the water and contemplates; will this be her last trip? Will Antonia get her big break? Will their relationship ever heal? Will she ever get laid again? It’s been over two decades since she has been intimate. It feels like a lost world, something intangible, as if trying to reconstruct a dream after awaking.
Edwin arrives soon after his wrap. He has always liked this spot and remembers coming here as a child with his sister-moms and brothers and sisters. They would have picnics and look out over the land believing that they had arrived in heaven, or at the very least, were nearly there. What could be more beautiful than this carved-out landscape? Though truthfully he just wants to get away from all of the hullabaloo at the ranch. With the constant screaming of the youngsters and whose night it would be amongst the wives. The rooster that is eternally argued over.
He sits on an opposite side of the look-out and takes in all of its beauty, letting out a deep breath after reaching this elevation. There is only himself and Sybil who sit staring out at the weeping water at this precise moment. Edwin remembers running around here with his siblings. Youth was a happy time. There was always someone to play with, make a fort or battle off invisible enemies between chores. He has lost touch with most of his brothers and sisters, as they do not approve of the porn.
“Certainly is a pretty spot, don’t you think?”
“Yes. There’s no denying that.”
“Mind if I park next to you?”
Edwin places himself on the bench next to Sybil. She is nervous. It feels like at least five incarnations ago since a man has flirted with her.
“Well, nice to meet you Sybil.”
Edwin smiles and Sybil notices right away his handsome windblown face, his good teeth and full head of unruly gray hair, which blows this way and that. He is fit without a paunch and she is uneasy and her face is turning red. She feels a hot flash coming on. She starts fanning herself with her empty lunch bag.
“Are you a tourist or from around these parts?”
“A tourist. Your northern neighbor to be exact. Canada.”
“Oh, where there?”
“I left Montreal recently and have resettled in Nova Scotia, which I left just short of a half a century ago. Man! Can’t believe I just said that. How did we get this far?”
“How do you find returning to your ol homestead after such a long time away?”
“It’s quite strange. I’m not at all sure I’ve made the right decision.”
“Well… I’m from this wonderful land. Would you care to visit some other areas of interest?”
“I’m not sure about that. I have a fixed itinerary and my rental car is due back at a specified time.”
“Hey, don’t dwell on simple details. You can save yourself some cash, plus visit some places you hadn’t thought of. Return your car at the nearest drop off. I’ve got some time off. I work in the film industry and just finished up a week’s worth of shoots. What do you say?”
Sybil’s mind is racing. Who is this guy? He could very well be a serial killer, rapist or just a mere kook. Still, there is something in the tone of his voice and the spaces between his words that makes her trust him.
The rental was dropped off in Springfield and she embarks on a tour of Bryce Canyon and Capital Reef. Moab. The trip takes just over three days.
They hunted for fossils and loved the silence amongst the layered rock. Edwin is charming and affectionate. His touch warms her like a fire on a winter’s eve. All those years she remained celibate…sometimes even the massage from the hairdresser’s assistant would fill her being with uneasiness. A mere brush to the body that had been without intimate contact stirred the emptiness inside her.
On their second evening, they slept together. Sybil had been nervous and restrained, but following a couple bottles of good wine she relaxed and melted into him as if she had always been a fit with this man. However, she is no spring chicken and though her joints are not as limber as they once were and personal dexterity has become more challenging, she’s pleased that she didn’t end up in a full body cast with one leg supported by traction, which both surprised and relieved her. On the third evening Edwin proposed. Sybil was about to accept, yet before she can let the word escape from her lips he covers her mouth softly with his forefinger.
“Sybil. I must disclose something before you reply. I’m a polygamist. I have eleven other wives and, if you agree, you shall be the twelfth. We are not fundamentalists. I grew up in that strict world, but our family isn’t based on restrictions. Our values are communal. Shared work ethic regarding child rearing and household tasks, friendship and love.”
Sybil’s mind is racing. What is this? Who is this? What have I got myself into? He could be a proper psycho. Well, hold your horses. We had a three day-fling. We’re not exactly involved…
“Before you make a decision, why not come to our ranch for a visit? Meet the family, have a meal. Try a few days.”
Sybil agrees, though she isn’t sure why. The whole arrangement sounds wildly weird. Nevertheless, she calls Antonia to announce her new plans. She’d met a guy and will prolong her stay a little while. Antonia listens without offering advice or warning or even ‘have a good time’.
“Uh-huh. OK. Till later.”
Sybil sits silent for the ride, as they travel to the foothills of the Wasatch Mountain Range. Edwin sings a song and reassuringly rubs her knee. It is a beautiful spread hosting a large main house with smaller homes side by side and what appears to be a huge garage behind. There are goats, chickens, pigs and cows. Horses lazily graze in another pasture. Three barns sit in the distance. As they approach, children run towards the truck laughing and waving eager to greet, Edwin their keeper.
Edwin had telephoned ahead to alert his first wife of his intentions. She was to go down the line informing the other ten wives of a possible twelfth. One by one the women approached, all of varied ages. The youngest three probably in their twenties or early thirties. Sybil is surprised to see that they all look normal. No strange hairdos or pioneer type conservative attire. They wear jeans, T-shirts and Converses. A few with cool summer dresses.
The first wife, Meryl, who is around the same age as herself, comes towards her holding out her hand and welcoming her with a big, toothy smile.
“Hello Sybil. Nice to have you here.”
The others saunter over to make her acquaintance. Sybil makes eye contact immediately forgetting each of their names. Too many, too fast.
“We’ve prepared a tasty meal.”
Sybil is given a tour of the main house, which is clean and simply decorated. Photographs grace the walls showcasing the generations of multiple kin, some of which display 19th century garb and women sporting weird pompadour hairdos. They head out to the back of the house where a handcrafted wooden table roughly thirty feet long is situated with a similar sized table for the children off to the side. The meal is delicious and the atmosphere amicable, although from time to time Sybil catches the leer of a jealous wife sizing her up. Calculating competition.
After three days at the ranch Sybil accepts Edwin’s proposal. She likes the idea of company, not being on her own. Although she could only retrieve a tiny hint of the other wives feelings towards her, she imagines they will warm up to her. Sybil FaceTimes with Antonia and invites her to the wedding, but Antonia declines saying, “Mom! Are you out of your mind?”
They are sealed in an open garden with Edwin leading the ceremony. Not that he holds true in his heart these sacraments. No, he likes the idea of another lady added to the pot. He has not expressed this to Sybil, but her savings and pension must be added to the family purse. While she is having a bath following their two-day honeymoon, Edwin transfers her savings to his bank account. Now that she is married, he contacts her bank informing them all funds and investments must be e-transferred to their joint account. All of her passwords and personal information are easy to find; she doesn’t have the best security money-transfer apps on her iPhone – bank passwords, investments and pension access are easily accessible. Security questions are ready to submit. He had taken a photo of her signature when she returned the rental car. All he had to do was Login, send a false, forged photo of the marriage licence and Bob’s your uncle!
It took Sybil some time before she noticed that something was amiss. She discovered this when attempting to draw some cash from her account after she was handed her measly allowance by Meryl. She contacted her bank immediately, but they assured her that no fraud had taken place. Her husband, Edwin Smith, had authorized the transfers to their new joint account. After all, her status had changed. She was no longer single. Without taking further action, Sybil decides to sit on it for a bit, but tells the bank this is not the last of it. Edwin is now far from her heart. How could he do this without consulting her first?
Before she gets to confront him on the matter, Edwin is off on a film shoot. He will be gone for a few weeks. Sybil is added to the work schedule.
In the days prior to his departure, Sybil was already bounced down on the romance docket. The younger wives given preference. The older wives, including herself, tabbed further down for sleepovers.
Sybil had been allotted a room in the main house. There were ten bedrooms in this roost. It was a bright square room flooded with natural light. When she was given work duties in the house, such as dusting and vacuuming and whenever she was alone in the house, she explored. She examined each and every bedroom. Checked out the attire in each closet. For example, which wife had a better clothes collection and who had better shoes. She formed a hierarchy blueprint of this plural marriage.
One particularly warm, cloudless day Sybil heard a commotion. There was a small minibus of young, fit ladies filling the backyard area of the main house. She was curious if these fresh bits of flesh would be added to the fuse. She wandered over to the yard watching the ladies enter the huge outbuilding two by two. Until now Sybil had not been invited to this part of the ranch, but hey… wasn’t she one of them? At least for now.
The space is open and grandiose. The minute she entered she realizes it’s a film set. There are lighting kits and booms, video cameras and sets partially built or complete. She spots Meryl and a few of the other wives sitting inspecting the ladies from the minibus. They are instructed to remove their clothing and strut their stuff. Sybil can’t quite grasp the meaning of it all and slowly walks closer for a peek.
“Sybil, come here. So what do you think?
“Of what exactly?”
“These ladies, what else?”
“Well, they’re lovely. But what are they doing here?”
“Didn’t Edwin tell you about our production company? Peek A Boo Films.”
“No. Actually he did not.”
“Well we do pretty well with it. We produce soft-core porn.”
“Oh, do you now?
“The farm can’t run on its own steam, so we stared this about fifteen years ago and it brings in quite a tidy sum.”
Sybil takes it all in all the while fuming at Edwin’s lack of disclosure. First it was her bank accounts and now this. She doesn’t have any moral hang-ups on the subject. Hell, she even danced in an erotic club to pay her way through university once upon a time. Yet, how many more secrets are buried on this land?
Nearly one month has passed since she had set foot on the ranch. After the initial honeymoon, she felt familiar naggings and doubts nipping at her ankles. She felt like an outsider amongst the other wives. Fuck, even the children paid her no mind and she was pissed at being left alone following Edwin’s quick departure. Her savings and casino winnings had been swept away in what seemed a microsecond and if her money was simmering in the family pot she was barely getting a whiff of it.
She had telephoned and texted Antonia countless times, but typically, Antonia didn’t respond. Antonia had come into some luck. She was to have her own show at one of the city’s big galleries. She had immersed herself in her work preparing multiple large pieces for the exhibition that would open in one week.
She had noticed her mother’s messages, but didn’t want to be distracted by some lament that she expected was to come, for some of Sybil’s texts were dramatic and crazed. Antonia had been working on a portrait. It is her homage to Sybil. It is a large piece taking one wall of the gallery.
Sybil is isolated on a flat background with a distorted face and open mouth suggesting a scream. The face is somewhat grotesque and her hair is swept up over her forehead in an exagerated pompadour. She sports a prairie dress that hangs to her feet. The painting is strange and alarming, with dark pigments layering the canvas. Yet, it demands the viewer to stare. It evokes feelings of confinement and withdrawal.
The portrait sells on opening night to a prominent collector. Antonia sends a photo to her mother with a red circle next to the title, which simply reads – Sybil.
Susan E. Lloy has consistently published internationally since 2012. Her short story collection, But When We Look Closer, was recently published by Now Or Never Publishing. Her forthcoming collection, Vita, will be released April 15, 2019. Susan lives in Montreal.