Excerpt: ‘Ember Days’ by Nick Ripatrazone

From Alameda:

Scott never spoke about her anymore. Not to Mary, not to the girls. He tried not to think about her. It was not always that way. There were years—1985, for example—that he was saturated with Alameda: her corn-brown hair, the uneven pleating of her corduroys, the heel of her hand blackened from charcoal sketches of pears and rivers. He even remembered the moment the thoughts swelled back in his mind: her birthday, the first day of February. He and Mary had agreed to celebrate it in silence: hands held beneath the sheets, a prayer at dinner. The girls were too young to question the once yearly public piety.

But he had learned his lesson. He had learned from Mary, who swallowed all fears, guilt, frustration. She would go weeks without complaints: he would back the car down the long driveway and the rear headlights painted her red as she shook salt along the black ice. In the garage he turned over her hands to the palms, the soft skin almost sunburned. She never wore gloves. She always got warm so quickly. She was unlike other women in that sense. His first sex was in that same car (then borrowed from his brother before he had a permit), in front of the heavy river that curled under the Halifax bridge, and after that moment the girl—Alyssa, Denise, Terri, whoever—shimmied her jeans back over hips, put on her sweater, zipped her down jacket and then blasted the heat, her chin leaned close to a vent. But Mary was content with cold. The fireplace lay unused for years, the flue nearly welded shut with leaves. He woke in the morning wound in the checkered Marlboro blanket his sister had mailed him, while Mary lay naked save for a stretched t-shirt, the collar frayed down to her breasts.

Then, as would be expected, she released all of her anger in a moment. He learned to wait for it on a Saturday. Two hours into mowing the wide yard he’d see her through the windows, pacing. Hands crossed. He came inside to talk and his boots muddied the tiles. She let loose then. They were not near anyone. Six acres of willows, Douglas firs, wetlands to the south and state game land to the east. If the entire family died no one would learn for weeks. They had a post office box in town, their family was far, far away, and their friends in town were the type of friends who didn’t bother. The girls spent each Saturday in Mendham. The youth softball coach had three daughters of her own. Scott hated the coach—his own girls were benched until deep in the game—but Mary liked the afternoon of freedom. The coach’s husband had promised Scott a new plow for his tractor. Soon, he said.

So her screams went unheard. They settled into the wallpaper and hardwood. At first he tried to hug them away but she’d only shake in his arms and belt again upon release. The tractor idled in the yard, steaming, wasting gas. The sun was going down and the girls were with the coach at the dinner table, wondering how anyone could eat Thousand Island dressing, wondering why the father always smiled, wondering how people could take naps in the middle of the day, dishes left on the kitchen table to crust. Leaving everything in the middle of life and falling into sleep. They had no idea their parents stood in the living room of their home screaming away the death of their older sister they didn’t know existed.

Not even a hint, really, that someone had preceded them. Dori and Iris were separated by a year and felt like they owned the house, the family. They knew their parents would never have another child. And if people in the town knew, they had not spoken a word: sometimes such secrecy is sweeter guarded than shared. But for whatever reason—the fact that the McMichaels had moved here after the death, or that Alameda was never spoken of in public—Dori and Iris lived in comfortable ignorance. When the coach dropped them off after those awkward Saturday afternoons they could sense a certain terseness to the home, a distance between their parents, but they had observed similar dislocation in other couples, in aunts and uncles. When the husbands of teachers gave those women kisses at football games. The sisters chalked this up to sex. The coach’s daughters had told them long ago that the second a couple had children the rest of their lives were spent planning: not where those children would attend college or whom they would marry, but instead how they could get rid of those children for bits of time. Not for good, of course, but for long enough. Dori was certain they were embarrassed. She thought her parents were worried that the sex was all over their faces.

Those Saturday nights they turned-in early and Scott whispered into Mary’s ear for what felt like hours. Variations of sorry, I understand, we will make it through this. Mary couldn’t wait to release again. On Sundays they spent the afternoons at St. Monica’s, the 9:00 Mass and then brunch afterward, the long tables in the church basement. They only stayed there long enough to eat, the four of them in a row, elbows wide, shoveling piles of mashed potatoes and eggplant between healthy swallows of cola. Then they met up with the priest, a friend from Pepperdine, who had three girlfriends at the same time his senior year before entering the seminary. They never talked about Alameda. They talked about California, how cold it was here in New Jersey. How so many people were having that exact same conversation at that moment: wondering, how did we end up here?

Father and Scott threw horseshoes behind the rectory and smoked cigarettes. Mary and the girls watched Bread on the fuzzed television, David Gates’s face molding into the amber background. Mary had a dream about him: he was making a sandwich at the kitchen table and invited her to sit with him. Then she woke up. She told Scott about the dream, as if she had to admit some nighttime infidelity, and he waved her off and went back to sleep. Then, when he woke the next morning, he interrogated her about it. First obtuse questions: was it really David Gates or that guy from Steely Dan? What kind of sandwich? What did you say when he asked you to sit? And then he dug in: why are you dreaming about David Gates?

He should have been thankful. She’d wake screaming during the week, the yells coming from her belly. There was no chance he could go back to sleep, even the girls were up until morning. Iris climbed down from the top bunk and Dori was fully willing to allow her sister to share the bed. They both pressed against the wall and listened to the heavy whispers of their parents. This is what they heard:

No, it wasn’t another dream about David.

David? Have you ever met this guy? You call him by his first name.

Scott, I’m serious. I got out of bed. I swear to God it felt so real. I walked down the hallway into the living room and the house was flooded. Water to my ankles. But none of it spilled into the stairs. I ran down to the foyer and out the door and the girls were out in the yard.

They heard their mother pause. She tended to do this halfway through her explanations of dreams. Dori rolled closer, pushing Iris away, who acquiesced. She molded her ear against the wall. Held back each breath. Heard nothing.

Even if they had been in the room with their parents, in bed with them; even if they could become their parents they would hear nothing but dry whispers. Mary’s mouth formed over Scott’s ear and she spoke nothing. But she traced the words: I miss Alameda. I know she is dead. I see her playing with the girls in the yard and then I see her how we found her in Abilene, but she looks alive.

None of that could be spoken.


Dori wore sandals in winter. The other three seasons also, but of course people asked her why, when snow covered the grass, she insisted on having open toes. She claimed reading that each person has a locus of heat. For some it’s the head, for others hands. Hers were the feet.

“I got that from my Mom.”

Dori liked to connect herself to her mother. They both had brown hair. Green eyes. Both were skinny enough to appear tall. Both spoke with a central Pennsylvania accent though neither had ever stepped foot in Snyder, Perry, or other counties. Both loved to run. Mary laced her sneakers in the mudroom and stretched in the open garage. She jogged the long driveway and then settled into a sprint up the street hill before returning to an even stride along the county road. She ran every day in 1986. That was not planned. She realized it around August, when Scott asked when was the last day she’d taken off. They thought together, tracing back the days—grounding their memories in trips, work, dinners at restaurants. Not a single day of rest.

Dori ran cross-country. Placed at sectionals but could never break through to groups. Only one girl could, Daniella Gonzalez, and she was running for Villanova the next year. Dori met her boyfriend, Peter, through running. He wasn’t very good until his coach told him to keep his hands in his pockets the night before races. Then he started winning, saving his push for the final quarter mile. His legs were not long but he stretched his strides. Mary was happy when she first met him. She wanted her girls to be with boys. Good ones, of course, but she wanted them to have boyfriends. She spoke with boys after assemblies, her legs crossed. Scott let her handle the girls. He never criticized, but he couldn’t help but keep watch. Mary had made it clear that he could barely handle himself.

Iris, though, hated to run, and played softball. She convinced Dori to join her on the team, to split the year between that and cross-country. Iris had short blond hair with brown eyes. She felt cheated that they were not light. She would step on Dori’s open toes and then allow her sister to catch her in the yard, then throw her to the ground and they would roll in the fresh clippings that pasted to their pale necks. Dori followed with punches: to the temple, once, but usually to shoulders, collarbone. They walked back to the house without blood but bruised before the night ended. More than once the school had called home to speak with Scott and Mary. More than once the sisters were told to stop. Dori was threatened with time away from Peter. There was little to threaten Iris with.

Alameda was gone, dead before they either were born, but most people would think some spiritual connection could exist, in the same way people claim the traits of ancestors. There might have been an absence, but there was no shape to it. There was only them. Sisters. Dori and Iris thought that they were the end of the McMichael world. Finished. Two sisters who looked nothing alike, who sounded nothing alike, who fought like boys, who pleaded for crab cakes at breakfast.

It was easy, then, for the girls to be happy in their worlds. Pete and Dori were having sex each Thursday. She went home with him after practice and his parents had dinner at The Homestead. All three courses. A cowboy-western theme: saddles and tack nailed to the walls, waitresses in boots, bartenders with ten-gallons. Pete’s bed was a queen, a hand-me-down from a Marine brother who impregnated the social studies teacher. They ran away together to Jackson City and joined Assembly of God. Pete’s family was still Catholic: a prerequisite to dating Dori.

Dori felt lost in the bed. Afterward she rolled around, then curled back next to him. She wished he was a bit heavier. She could almost feel his ribs. His stubble was uneven. He liked that. She didn’t. He liked to spread his arms and legs, deep breaths pushing his spine against the mattress. They had an hour to relax, unwind, shower, get dressed again. Dori tucked her jeans into boots and reapplied makeup. Pete pressed his wool sweater, pushing the steam into the fabric. Dori was satisfied.

Iris was, but not with boys. Her first love was softball. She begged Mary to take her to watch the fast-pitch tournament at the community college. She wanted to pitch, had a low center of gravity and wide hips, felt comfortable being watched and counted upon. Scott was all for it. He did not understand running, why Mary and Dori paced around the oxblood track for nearly an hour. It looked dumb. Scott loved baseball, once told a girl he played AAA in Twin Falls. It was for some reason, some stupid reason: the usual impetus for the lies he told. He had never been to Twin Falls. He’d seen one AAA game, in Sioux City. But for some reason that lie traveled, passed around by those who gave it feathers and fur, and now the word was that Scott had a healthy career there. Even the softball coach’s husband was high on the lie, saying to Scott, almost whispering into his ear, that the majors were full of huskers, that the satellite teams were the only places were skill was still being practiced. This was a perennial fantasy of those who live in the grassroots world. Even Scott, who was prone to fabrication, knew it was less than true.

But here was Iris: confident, sure of arm, and willing to be coached. Scott crouched along the side of the house and took pitch after pitch, hide snapping into leather. She could throw hard. After fifty pitches he sat back on the grass, the softball still tucked in the glove, and called her over. He gave meaningless advice on form but really needed rest. Iris could be exhausting. The softball coach had seen promise in her and gave typed workouts for Iris to complete in the summer months. They read:

Squats (max-out) 4 X 8 (really hold it on the last one)

Arm whirls after everything (you don’t want stiff muscles)

Hill repeats. Jump rope. Bounders.

And so on. Iris had even convinced coach to include a line at the bottom for Scott to sign. He did, pressed against the folded newspaper resting on his knee, and passed it over to Iris just as Mary leaned to kiss him on the cheek, her own pasted with sweat. She and Dori stood, shoulders heaving, in the center of the living room, sweating. They looked very much alike. And though Scott had invented a demarcation between his daughters for his own amusement, Dori and Iris got along fine. They were not competition for each other. Each had her own world.

Years later—when all that came to pass actually came to pass—they would recognize this as the proof that they did know of Alameda their entire lives. Somehow her existence had crept into their consciousness: it could have been a wayward whisper shortly after their birth, a slip of tongue between their parents or a relative. But they must have known. There could be no other way, no other reason why the two could be so close, why Iris didn’t hate Dori for Pete or the other boys who would come. Why Dori didn’t hate Iris for seeming to have all of Scott’s love. They had been prepared for this; they had been breed for this. This was their life.

Image by Michael Petryk

Piece excerpted from Ember Days, by Nick Ripatrazone, published April 2015 by Braddock Avenue Books. Republished with permission from the author.

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