The Copper State
‘Is she dead?’ mouths Alice, between reluctant bites of a cherry-flavoured Pop-Tart. I shrug—so many empty spaces in this room are already occupied by the dead. Why shouldn’t Kara fill another?
I have no memories of my aunt Kara, although I know we met once, during a dry Arizonan summer almost two decades ago. I remember dragging my white sandals through the dust with her daughter, my cousin, Gabby. I had thought of Gabby as big and vivacious, although I only had one of those words at the time, and had returned to London full of lies about her, and us, and the things we had done together; lies told with the intention of making our worlds seem closer. Now, sitting next to Gabby once again, those two lost decades hang heavy in my mind.
‘Your mother hated Pop-Tarts,’ Priscilla says to Gabby, picking up a donut. ‘You never had them when you were a kid.’
‘Fuck my mom!’ Gabby shouts, reaching defiantly for a peanut butter Pop-Tart. Kara is not spoken of with the fondness usually reserved for the dead.
‘You got snacks?’ Jeff calls, from his leather sofa, and it takes me a moment to realise he’s speaking, not some rasping Nickelodeon character on the TV. Two months have passed since I arrived in the USA, and I’m still not used to hearing American accents in real life. Growing up alongside the characters in Malcolm in the Middle and The OC having left me with the uneasy feeling that everyone here is playing at being themselves.
Jeff is Priscilla’s husband, and Priscilla is my, Gabby’s and The Twins’ aunt. She is also my father’s stepsister and Kara’s half-sister, as well as both of their cousins, since my father’s father returned to America after serving in the navy, and had had an affair with his brother’s wife. He has had a bad leg since a hunting accident with my uncle Lou, Priscilla’s brother, and he rarely leaves his leather sofa, let alone the house. I do not know the nature of that incident, but I do know that Lou accidentally shot his sister in the arm when she was eight years old, and that Lou and Jeff once killed a deer and dragged its bloodied body down from the mountains in a sleeping bag tied to the underbelly of their truck.
‘Alice and I were thinking of going for a walk,’ I tell him.
He shakes his head, not shifting his gaze from the TV.
‘Priscilla! The girls can’t go for a walk now, it’s too hot out.’
‘We’ll be fine,’ I urge. ‘We’ll stay in the shade.’ Priscilla—the retired matriarch, freshly burdened with four children to care for, and two strangers—approaches with authority.
‘It’s too hot out, girls; you wanna wait till later? I can give you a lift to the park.’ Crippled by our English sensibilities, we reluctantly agree.
‘The tarmac absorbs the sun, that makes it even hotter during the day,’ Jeff says. ‘South Phoenix is especially hot, cos it’s full of niggers.’
I wince. Jeff wheezes. The Twins, who are sitting at the kitchen table, scrolling through Instagram, smirk.
‘Good one, Uncle Jeff!’ Gabby laughs. I look out of the window at the scorching terracotta tiles.
‘Are you gonna go to the park with the girls?’ Priscilla calls to Madison and Amanda, The Twins. I clench my teeth, willing them to say no.
‘No, thank you, Priscilla,’ they reply, almost in unison. My shoulders drop in relief, like deflating balloons.
‘I’m picking Gracie up from her gramma’s at six, so I’ll drop you at the park on the way,’ Priscilla says to us. ‘Gracie can’t wait to meet you.’
‘Aw,’ I say, as an anxious rattling fills my stomach.
A little later, Alice and I share a cigarette in the park as I call my dad and tell him, in nervous fits of giggles, that his sister might be dead.
Alice was my school friend. Bored and disillusioned by our nine-to-five lives in London, we’d quit our jobs to go on a road trip around the United States, chasing dreams of Thunderbird convertibles and Brad Pitt. We rented a house in LA, gambled away our money in Las Vegas, and posed beneath majestic waterfalls in Yosemite. And now, seeking visceral understanding of a close extended family that I barely knew, I had persuaded her to accompany me to Arizona to meet them.
But the trip served another purpose, too, the extent of which I hadn’t fully communicated. I had drawn much of our route from my brother’s journals, which he’d kept during his own trip around the United States, six years earlier, and mere months before he died. Lumbered with the weight of my one-sided memories, and the stoic silence that had befallen my family since his sudden death, I hoped that retracing his steps might help me to gain a greater sense of who he was, beyond ‘my-annoying-brother-who-ate-spaghetti-for-breakfast’.
When Gracie arrives, Jeff asks us to pose for a group photograph in the garage, next to his son’s glistening Harley-Davidson—the same pose I’d seen several years before, while flicking through my brother’s photo albums. Only now, those standing by the long since defunct chopper form are mere fragments of the family immortalised in the original image.
Seven-year-old Gracie is Priscilla’s granddaughter. Two years ago, her father shot her mother. Then he shot himself. Like many of the things that have happened in this family, I do not know the details of the incident, only what Priscilla has been comfortable enough to tell my dad via email. I have a vague idea that Gracie was in the room when the shots were fired, but I also heard that Gabby was at the house that day, and that she and Gracie went out for ice cream, and returned to find Gracie’s parents dead. Or maybe it was that Gracie was alone in the house with her dead parents when Gabby arrived to take her for ice cream. I cannot tell what is true, and what is a manifestation of my predilection for tragedy.
That night, we drive up to Lake Pleasant to meet Lou and his new wife for dinner. Uncle Lou had been a permanent, but removed, fixture of my childhood. He lived in the mountains, a self-proclaimed cowboy who always seemed to have a different wife, and whose children I had never met. We had stayed with him when I was six, when my mother was heavily pregnant with my youngest sister, and America had felt young and robust; full of Disney characters and swimming pools and corn dogs. I knew that Lou had built a shed for the sole purpose of housing his 43 guns, had a horse ranch, and used to send me cowgirl outfits in the post, which I had worn proudly for many years, pronouncing at any given opportunity that these were gifts from my cowboy uncle, who had once taken me to Disney World.
We arrive at Lake Pleasant just before sunset, and take a shuttle from Jeff’s car, along a winding bridge to a row of restaurants.
Lou is no longer the raven-haired cowboy that I worshipped from a distance of 5,200 miles and 18 years. He is old now, with a bulging stomach constricted by a white vest. His latest wife, Mindy, is sitting on his lap as we enter the restaurant. She reminds me of the women in The Real Housewives of Beverley Hills, only weathered by the mountains—old in a way that they managed to resist.
‘Hello, darlin’,’ she chirps. ‘It’s so good to meet you, honey!’
Lou is more reserved, yet he hugs me tightly, exclaiming bewilderment that I am no longer a child. (I am bewildered by it, too.)
‘We thought you might like it here,’ he says, with what I liked to think of as his cowboy twang. ‘We took Jonny here when he came to visit.’
‘Oh, really?’ I ask, taken aback by the ease with which they say my brother’s name.
‘We sat right over there,’ Priscilla points to the corner of the restaurant. ‘He had such a big appetite for such a little guy! How did he stay so thin?’
‘I need his tips!’ says Mindy, flicking her hair. Her slip into the present tense invites discomfort.
‘The cheeseburger is really good here,’ Gabby says, breaking the silence.
‘Mmm, I want the cheeseburger,’ chimes Gracie.
‘I’ll tell you what Jonathan had,’ says Priscilla, pushing her glasses down her nose and studying the menu. ‘He had the ribs and a starter of shrimp. He said it was really good.’
‘Hmm, maybe I’ll get the same,’ I say.
‘Do you remember that man with the ears?’ Jeff asks. I brace myself for what might come next.
‘Oh, my God, Jonathan was so funny…’ Priscilla begins, stifled by fits of laughter. ‘There was a man here and he had the biggest ears you’ve ever seen, and they were so hairy…’
‘You’ve never seen anything like it!’ Jeff says, as all the adults roar hysterically.
‘He was sitting right next to us, practically on the same table,’ Priscilla says, ‘and he just had these huge, hairy ears, this man, and we had all noticed them, but we didn’t know that we had all noticed them, or we didn’t want to admit it, and we were all trying not to look…’
‘And then, this guy got up to go to the toilet and Jonathan just went, “Oh, my God, have you all seen his ears?”’ finishes Lou.
Everyone laughs again, and I laugh too, because that was actually nice to hear.
Moments later, the restaurant band starts playing: smashing drums, and screaming down their microphones. I watch as Gracie’s face crumples, she bursts into tears and sticks her fingers in her ears. A waiter comes over and we order. Gabby asks for a cheeseburger to share with Gracie, but the child keeps crying, her face turning redder and redder, her hands smacking against her ears. The music keeps on playing, and as it grows louder, so do Gracie’s screams. Alice and I stand up to get some fresh air, and take the (seemingly invisible) upset child with us.
After I returned to England, I found out that Kara was actually alive, but that The Twins had been removed from her care, after the methamphetamine addiction that she had struggled with since the age of 15 had spiralled out of control. The nature of what they meant by ‘spiralled’ was alarming: Kara and The Twins had been living at Gracie’s parents’ house for a couple of months, and they were there, with Gracie, the night that Gracie’s father shot her mother, and then himself. Kara had called the police when she heard the shots being fired, before leaving—alone—with Gracie’s parents’ valuables, which she pawned to buy drugs. Nobody has seen or heard from her since.
We sit on a dock outside the restaurant and watch the copper banks around us turn dusty blue. All of us silent as Alice strokes Gracie’s hair until her crying fades to irregular sobs.
‘It’s pretty,’ Gracie says, peacefully, and we both agree.
Before long, Gabby and The Twins join us outside, and ask Gracie if she has shown us her cartwheels yet. Gracie yanks us both by the hands and pulls us away from the dock, to show us.
‘I want to be on cheer squad,’ she squeals.
Soon, everything is dark, except for the lights dancing across the bay, and so we go inside and eat our food.
Photograph by Annabelle Phillips