When Love is Born
I drove with the heater on full blast and somehow Tug slept with the wind rushing at his shattered window. I kept checking the rearview mirror but no headlights came up behind us, only a semi and a silver pickup with a camper going the other way.
A white-winged owl and a black fisher crossed the road and both times I flinched. “Indian Lovers!” The rifle shots kept crashing in my ears, the ugly voices shouting down through the pines, and I heard again the pop and woosh of the lantern blowing up as the camp table caught fire.
I remembered the clapboard store along the Cinnamon River, the clerk with the dyed black hair and red muu muu and the way she had treated the old Indian woman I’d given the five dollars.
She’d sold the woman the wine, then said, “We don’t like people giving them money.”
“You have many fine vintages,” Tug said and she’d threatened to phone her husband.
“No, White Eye speak with fork tongue,” Tug answered. He waved his hand sideways and we’d walked out and she must have made the call, telling the men we were camped at Turtle Lake.
I would have played the radio for company but I didn’t want to wake Tug. There was only the sound of the wind at the shot-out window and I tried to think ahead to where we were going, to Tug’s sister’s house and her husband’s mill in Montana. Twice I saw blue eyes glow, first a doe elk and then a stag with a dark vest, both of them moving just off the shoulder.
In the mirror the buck crossed through the red of the taillights and I was glad we hadn’t collided.
Near dawn there was another big elk with tall antlers and half an hour after sunrise a pair of deer and a speckled fawn lying just off the road in a meadow. Something was wrong and I felt a shiver, slowing the pickup.
It wasn’t a single horn but a still blue jay perched between the fawn’s wide ears.
The young deer stared forward beside the two does and didn’t move or seem to mind.
Now the jay looked right and left, then dipped his beak, pinching something from the gold fur, and jumped to the grass, hopping happily with his blue crest thrown back in the morning light.
It was odd because I’d cut the poem, “The Deer Grows Older,” by Anonymous, from The Beachcomber, the Mussel Bay newspaper, the week before. Without trying, like a kid remembering a jump-rope rhyme, I knew it by heart.
I looked over at Tug, then watched the white lines leap up brightly like words:
I’m born a fawn—in meadow light
My coat glows tawny, speckled, white.
I didn’t give myself the name
But antlers grow, the fawn remains
With tender heart, black nose, large eyes,
Fur like silk—I’ve no dark skies
Except for clouds of human hunters
Spouting fire, then sudden thunder.
“Gentle as a deer,” man likes to say
And speaks the truth: Love is my way
My secret war. A hidden unicorn,
I feel a single, twisting thorn
That grows and spirals endless years
Until one day between bright ears
It sprouts and shines like precious gold
When love is born and I am old.
About eight we came down Hundred Ox Pass into the rising sun and I leaned over and touched Tug’s arm.
“I think we’re there.”
Tug sat up and wiped his eyes as a square road sign flashed by on the right.
|Welcome to Montana|
|The Big Sky State|
“The Klan didn’t get us?”
“No so far.”
“Too late now. We’re home free.”
“You sleep all right?”
“I did,” Tug said. He reached for the glove compartment. “I dreamed about the jackalope at the store. It was small, before it got real big.”
He put the joint in his mouth and lifted a match.
“It was still friendly, though. Not like the hag.”
We rounded a long curve and below us spread a valley with high mountains to the north and east under the fabled Big Sky.
You could see the individual snow-streaked scarps across a yellow plain divided by a bright curving river like a road. The basin filled with light and the gilded snow on the far peaks made it a 19th-century painting of an endless Western vista back to Eden except for the pink contrail of an Air Force jet.
I remembered that most of the valley had been a lake. Once, mile-long V’s of duck and Canadian geese had planed down across an empty sky. Teepees painted with suns and moons clustered along the blue shore where spires of smoke rose from cooking fires and drying racks. Chief Joseph and his band had camped there, on the run from the cavalry, General Phil Sheridan or Captain Reno or somebody—
I was tired and drowsy. I thought if I looked quickly at a slant, at just the right angle, I’d see tiny figures in tan deerskin, with feathers in their hair, before they sensed me watching them and dissolved.
“Is that Kootenay?”
The town looked small and almost lost against the heroic landscape. Its buildings and houses seemed modest and vulnerable under the wide lit dome.
“That’s it,” Tug said, inhaling. “Those’re the Kootenay Mountains.”
At the west end of the town stood the mill. White smoke went straight up from the cone-shaped chimney but I knew on windy days it would drift across much of the basin.
“It looks like a toy town.”
“Nope,” Tug said. “It’s all grown up. You want some?”
He offered the joint.
“It’s too early,” I said.
We coasted down the long grade onto the flat. The mill with its black volcano chimney, five or six stories high, and tin-roofed warehouses and saw-sheds passed on the left, across the blue river.
“Ray’s place. We’ll be working there tomorrow.”
“What river is that?” The moving water glinted like glass shards.
“Clark Fork of the Columbia,” Tug said.
We went along the straight road until stores and fast-food places started on either side and we passed the shopping center with Rocky Mountain chains—Skaggs and 4Bs and Forsters’. All the cars had white Montana Big Sky plates, the letters and numbers inside the red outline of the state.
“Where’s your brother-in-law live?”
“South side of town. Up that ridge.” Tug pointed with the cigarette. “Take a right at that light up there.”
I turned at the stoplight and we drove out an open avenue past a college and football stadium toward the houses on the hill.
We climbed the slope.
“What’s the address?”
At the crest the road branched three ways: Ridgetop, Crestview, Pinecrest.
“You don’t know the street?”
Tug shrugged, putting out the joint in the tray.
“Man, they’re all the same. Go right. It’s in here somewhere.”
We passed a line of tract pink and white ranch houses. They looked identical.
“There it is. That’s Ray’s pickup.”
I made a U and parked behind the new Dodge Ram four-by-four. It had a low camper shell and Yosemite Sam mud flaps that said “Back Off,” each droopy-mustached prospector drawing two long-barreled pistols.
It was a long, low, yellow house, with brown wood shutters and a curving brick walk.
“Bro, don’t say nothing about the window,” Tug said.
“Joyce is kind of nervous.”
“It never happened. But what did?”
I looked at Tug.
“We left some baloney in the cab and the bear went after it. Happens all the time. Plus they love bears up here.”
“Hate ’em with a passion. A girl camper up at Glacier got eaten and the whole state went nuts. It’ll get us in good, like we’re old-timers, wrapping bacon around dynamite, that sort of weird business.”
“I thought you said your sister was nervous.”
“She’s a hunter now, since she met Ray. It’s cool.”
Tug pushed back his bushy hair and leaned across to look in the mirror.
“How do I look?”
“You’re about a negative 10.”
“‘Don’t screw with Idaho!’” Tug said. “I know all about negative numbers. I did graphing. It’s a secret but I’m a linguist and a math whiz.”
He grinned, tapped my shoulder and got out.
I saw the white figurine on the dash and reached for it. The Indian woman at the store had made me take it when I gave her the money. The baby carved from antler smiled as it slept in its cradle canoe. She’d said it was the Sleeping Child. “It’ll bring you good luck.” I followed Tug up the brick walk.
Tug pushed the bell, then opened the screen door and knocked.
The door opened and a pretty, tired-looking woman in a blue housecoat and slippers stood in the doorway. I thought her brown eyes looked vaguely familiar before I remembered she was Tug’s sister.
Her face lit up.
“I didn’t recognize you with the earring—”
She and Tug hugged.
“You just get here?” She ran a hand down her long brown hair and touched the throat of her robe.
“Just now. This here’s Bill Ryder. This is my sister, Joyce.”
She stepped backwards, again closing the collar of her housecoat.
“Come in. I’m afraid the house is a mess—”
She turned to Tug.
“Ray’s sister’s here. We did some drinking last night. Ray’s off today.”
Joyce stopped, staring out the screen door at the street.
“What happened to your window?”
“A bear,” I said.
She looked at us.
“We’ll tell you the story later,” Tug said.
“You better not. You know Ray.”
“How is old Raymondo?”
She hesitated, then asked, “Have you two eaten? I’m making pancakes.”
We followed her through the paneled living room across an oval rug—past a plaid sofa and mounted animal heads, deer and a big moose, and a rifle on a wall rack, a walnut gun case with shotguns and three long-barreled revolvers—and into the kitchen.
A big-shouldered man with thinning, sandy hair reached a large hand across a table crowded with beer bottles. A blonde, attractive girl in a sweatshirt and Levis sat slumped in the chair to his right.
“This is Denise, Ray’s sister,” Joyce said.
At the other end of the table a baby with curly, blonde hair sat in a high chair, looking at everyone with wide, blue eyes.
“This is Charlie,” Joyce said. “He’s my little hero.”
“Joyce, how ’bout a beer for your brother and his friend?” Ray said.
“We’re about to have breakfast—”
“I might have one,” Tug said. “If Denise will.”
“I’ll have another,” Denise said.
“You want one, Bill?” Joyce asked.
“Sure,” Ray said, “go ahead.”
“Okay,” I said. The baby waved an arm, smiling at me.
“Give Charlie a beer too,” Tug said. “He wants one.”
“Would you clear the table, Ray, so the guys can have some room?”
Joyce watched as Ray leaned toward Tug.
“I got to show you my new Mossberg, seven-millimeter. It’s sweet. Got it last week—”
“Here we go.” Joyce looked at me, shaking her head.
“Let me help you.” I reached for a bottle.
“Just throw them in that basket.” Joyce pointed toward a plastic barrel beside the refrigerator.
She turned back to a bowl of batter on the counter.
“Where you from?” said Denise.
“Oregon,” Tug said. “‘The Evergreen State.’”
“That’s Washington,” Denise said.
“Sorry.” Tug made a circle with his hand, erasing an invisible blackboard.
“Tug and his friend are going to work at the mill,” Ray said to Denise.
“You’re moving to Kootenay?” she asked.
“That’s right,” Tug said. “Where’s the welcome wagon?”
“Outside,” Denise said. “Ray’s new pickup.” She leaned forward, squinting as she read Tug’s t-shirt. “‘What Happened?’”
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Tug said. “Inquiring minds want to know—”
Ray gripped Tug’s wrist.
“Like I was saying. Ping! A bull’s eye every time—”
I lifted a bottle, shook it, and grabbed another. All of them were empty. I set them carefully in the barrel and went back for more. We’d caught the household between the morning-hangover beers and breakfast.
“Dead on the money.”
“Yeah?” Tug said.
“Let me show you.”
Ray got up and went toward the living room. I took a sponge from the sink and wiped the table.
“Hey, Charlie boy! I’m a jackalope!”
Tug made a face, palms at his ears. The baby laughed, waving his hands.
“Where’re those beers, Joyce?” Ray held out the rifle to Tug.
“I’ve only got three arms—,” Joyce poured the batter onto the sizzling skillet.
“She’s a beauty,” Tug said. “I wish I’d had it at Turtle Lake.”
I went to the refrigerator and opened the door. Except for a half-gallon of milk and a carton of orange juice, the top shelf was all beer bottles. Coors.
I grabbed three and put them on the table.
“Thanks, Bill,” Ray said. He leaned the new rifle against the wall.
“Yeah,” Denise said. “You’re polite.”
“Learned it from me.” Tug twisted off the cap and handed the beer to Denise. “I used to teach deportment.”
Denise stared at Tug for a second and started to laugh.
Ray slapped Tug on the back.
“Good to see you again, buddy!”
“You’re out there,” Denise said. “Aren’t you?”
“So I’ve been told,” Tug agreed.
The baby giggled happily. I stepped toward the stove.
“Would you like a beer, Joyce?”
She looked up with a resigned expression.
“Are you going to have one?”
“I guess so,” I said.
“Sure,” she said. “Why not?”
I got two more from the refrigerator.
We sat down and Tug mentioned the baloney, the truck window, and the imaginary bear—his cover story for the rifle fire at Turtle Lake. It was dark, he wasn’t sure if it was a brown bear or a grizzly—
Ray became both excited and outraged, describing a rogue hunter with a drugged dart and a stick of dynamite, throwing up his arms as he mimicked the grizzly’s explosion.
“Hey, I’ve got another good one—”
Ray leaned back, brandishing a brass-cased bullet.
“This is even better.”
“No!” Joyce said. “We don’t want to hear it, do we, Denise?” She closed her eyes.
I’d watched Joyce’s face light up and go dark, as first Tug broadly altered last night’s armed attack in Idaho, then Ray told his story of mutilation.
Again I thought how pretty she was.
“Ooooo,” the baby gurgled, smiling, lifting his chin. Joyce reached over and dabbed his mouth with a napkin.
“These two guys were working for the power company,” Ray said.
“Please, Ray.” Joyce lowered her head.
“They’re way up in the Missions,” Ray went on. “Two guys with a snow-cat and a cable. They’re checking this branch line from the reservoir, Deer Lake, I think.
“Anyway, they’re having lunch in the snow-cat and one of the guys, he says, ‘Look over there.’ He points at this opening in the rock. He says, ‘I’m going to take a look. It’s probably a cave full of gold or something.’”
“That’s logical,” Denise said.
“He gets out and walks over and then goes inside. Pretty soon he runs out, waving for the other guy to follow. So the second guy goes in and there’s this great big, sleeping grizzly.
“‘You’re crazy,’ says the second guy. ‘I’m getting out.’
“‘Naw,’ says the other one, ‘he’s asleep. Watch.’ He pokes the bear in the belly with his boot and it doesn’t budge. ‘Let’s have some fun,’ he says. ‘Back up the cat and unspool some cable.’
“‘Why?’ the other guy says.
“‘Just do it,’ he says. ‘I’ll show you.’
“So they back the snow-cat up and drag the bear out. It’s still dead asleep, snoring. They tie one end of the cable to one tree and the other end to another tree.”
“Oh no.” Denise put a hand over her eyes.
“They pull the middle of the cable, where the grizzly’s flopped over, until it stretches, like a rubber band? This great big long cable about 50 yards long? Then they let it loose. It was just like a slingshot—”
“That bear flew all the way across the gorge, a good 1,000 yards. I guess halfway over, the grizzly woke up and let out a howl you could hear in Canada.”
“I knew a bear that smoked weed,” Tug said. “They called him Smoky the Bear.”
Denise giggled. I turned and watched the baby. He grinned, taking in all the adults.
“Bring the baby another beer. Denise, you’re up,” Ray said.
“All out.” Denise stared down at her sticky plate.
“Out?” Tug looked shocked. “That’s outrageous!”
“Go get some more,” Ray said.
“You’ve got work tomorrow,” Joyce said.
“Naw, I’m going bear hunting.”
“Come on, Tug.” Denise leaned forward, taking Tug’s arm. “Let’s go get some beer.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Tug held out his hand and I tossed him the truck keys.
They left the kitchen and the front door slammed.
“You must think we’re awful,” Joyce said to me.
“Shit, no,” Ray said from the end of the table. His face was red, his eyelids puffy. “Bill’s family, aren’t you?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Better believe it. We’re going to slice some timber, ain’t we, Bill?”
“That’s why we came.”
“You should go lie down,” Joyce said.
“I’m waiting for Tug,” Ray said.
“I’ll have him wake you up,” Joyce said.
“Okay.” Ray pushed his chair back. He turned and lifted the rifle. “See you in a while, Bill. I’m going to snooze for 20 minutes.” He gripped my shoulder.
“Thanks for the beer,” I said.
“We’re just getting started,” Ray said over his shoulder. In a minute he began to snore.
“He’ll sleep for hours,” Joyce said.
“Yeah?” I said.
“Talk about hibernation.” Joyce put her palm to her forehead. “I wish the baby slept like that.”
“Tug’ll get him up.”
“Nothing’ll get him up.”
“Let me help with the dishes.”
“No, sit still,” Joyce said. “I bet you’re tired.”
“I’m a bit beered out.”
“That was a long drive from Oregon.” Joyce turned, glancing toward the sink. “You want to feed the baby? You don’t have to.”
“Okay,” I said. I guessed she was as tired as I was.
She got up and took a jar of baby food from the refrigerator and ran it under warm water. She handed it to me with a teaspoon.
I dipped the spoon and held it to the baby’s lips. His good nature evaporated. He began to cry, pushing at my hand.
“Honey, Mama’s got to work.”
Joyce cleared away the empty plates and bottles.
“Maybe if you hold him. Do you mind?”
I lifted the baby from the highchair. I held him on my lap, then picked up the spoon.
“Come on, Charlie,” I said.
The baby cried again. On a hunch I pulled out the carved baby in the canoe. I moved it in front of Charlie’s face.
“Huh? You like that?” His eyes were wide. He grabbed for the Sleeping Child.
“You want to hold it? It’s a little baby, isn’t it? You like the little baby? Is it sleeping?”
Charlie held the carving, then opened his mouth.
“No, honey,” I said. “It’s not to eat.” I reached for his hand but he jerked the Sleeping Child away. I pretended to reach for it again and he laughed.
“Are you married?” Joyce asked from the sink.
“Divorced.” I watched that the baby didn’t put the antler carving in his mouth. I lifted the spoon and he took a bite without turning his head. He looked surprised.
“There you go, Charlie. Isn’t that good?”
“You have kids?”
“No.” I filled another spoon with the orange food.
“It’s not the worst thing in the world,” Joyce said. “Ray was married twice before and he never sees his.”
“I guess not.” I held the spoon to Charlie’s mouth but this time his lips were sealed. He waved the Sleeping Child above his head.
“I’m going to let these soak,” said Joyce. “I’ll see if I can get him to sleep.”
I put the spoon down.
“You’re going to sleep now,” I told Charlie. “You want to give me back the little baby?”
Charlie gripped the carving, holding it up when I reached for it. He started to cry.
“I’ll let him keep it for a while. If he won’t swallow it.”
“I’m sure it’s too big,” Joyce said. “Come on, honey.”
Joyce leaned down, lifting the baby from my lap. She took him down the hall. I sat there for a minute, looking out the window above the sink, hearing Ray’s snores from the living room.
I got up and looked in, watching Ray sleeping with his mouth open on the couch. The bearded moose jutted from the wall above the sofa, next to the new, scoped rifle on a deer-foot rack. The moose seemed to stick its head through the side of the house.
I went to the divided sink and turned on the faucet. I pulled a dish from the soapy water, wiped it with a sponge, then rinsed it over the empty sink and set it in the rack.
I jumped and nearly dropped a mixing bowl when I felt a hand touch my back.
“Did I scare you?”
It was Joyce, wearing make-up and shiny lipstick. She’d brushed her hair and changed into Levis and a tank top. Her breasts pressed against the blue, ribbed fabric. She had pretty shoulders and slim arms.
“You startled me,” I said.
I turned away, holding the bowl under the faucet.
“You don’t need to do those dishes.”
“I don’t mind,” I said. I set the bowl in the rack.
“Most of our guests aren’t so polite.”
“It just takes a few minutes.” I put my hand in the full sink and touched a spoon.
“You want a cup of coffee?”
Again I heard Ray snore from the living room.
“Sure. Sober me up.”
Joyce turned to a cabinet.
“Fine.” I rinsed a glass and put it in the rack, then brought up another plate. Joyce set out two cups and saucers and spooned in the coffee.
“No, just a little milk.”
Joyce touched my shoulder.
“Why don’t you let them soak. Sit down and have your coffee.”
“Okay.” I dried my hands on a dishtowel.
“Oh,” Joyce said. She reached a hand into her Levis pocket. “Here’s your figurine.”
She held out her palm and I saw a red tattoo on her wrist. She saw me notice and smiled.
“It’s real. It’s a birthmark.”
It was a perfect red heart, as if etched with a needle.
“I used to think it was good luck, until I met Ray.”
I sat at the table. Joyce turned on the burner under the kettle and adjusted the flame.
“What is it?”
She turned from the stove.
“Something called the Sleeping Child,” I said.
“Like the lake?”
“I don’t know. Last night a woman gave it to me, at a store.”
“I’ve been to Sleeping Child Lake.” Joyce leaned again against the drainboard. The blue top and jeans showed her good figure. “It’s sort of odd.”
“The color of the water. It’s green, like that sugar bowl.” Joyce nodded. “Only clear. You can see a long way down. It’s pretty big. And bare, no trees on the hills. There’s a fancy hotel. It’s two hours north of here.”
She bent her head, pulling back her brown hair.
“I stayed there once, at a legal conference. Before I met Ray.”
She looked up again, smiling.
“There’s supposed to be a monster. Like Loch Ness. We went out in a boat, to look at the rocks.”
“These underwater canyons. They’re like a city. Mesa Verde or Canyon de Chelly. Except no one ever lived there. They’re natural formations. You rent these boats with special periscopes.”
The kettle whistled and Joyce turned off the burner.
She poured the hot water into the cups and stirred them with a spoon. She picked up my cup and brought it to the table.
“There’s an Indian story, how the lake is the door to another world.”
“What world?” I said.
As she leaned to set the cup in front of me, her hair brushed my cheek. She turned her face.
“One better than this—”
Her lips grazed mine, pressed and opened, and she slipped onto my lap.
I pulled back.
“Did I scare you again?” She put her arms around my neck, looking into my eyes. “I didn’t mean to.”
Ray let out a rattling snore that ended with quick gulping sounds.
“You think this is a good idea?” I said.
With a finger Joyce moved my collar, then gently touched my cheek with her palm. I could smell her sweet perfume, like vanilla.
“He’s out,” she said.
I leaned my head back.
“It doesn’t feel right.”
Joyce pretended to frown. “I thought I kiss pretty well. People who were supposed to know used to tell me so.”
“Tug’ll be back,” I said.
“They’ll be gone for hours.”
“They went for beer.”
Joyce brought her lips close again and I turned my head.
“Joyce,” I said.
Joyce smoothed my hair. “Don’t be nervous. You afraid Ray’s going to shoot you with his new gun?”
“Don’t worry. Ray wouldn’t do that. He might shoot me but not you—”
I tried to sit up straight but Joyce didn’t adjust her weight. I felt pinned to the chair.
“I don’t want anybody to get shot.”
“I’ve got a gun too.”
Joyce stroked my knee. “You don’t?”
“Look, this isn’t a good idea,” I said.
“Last week a husband and wife got into a fight,” she said almost dreamily. “They got their deer rifles and went out into the street and started firing.”
“Jesus.” I started to squirm.
Joyce nuzzled my ear. “Nobody got hurt. They missed. Their attorney got them off with misdemeanor dueling.”
“Don’t you like me?”
“I like you fine. I just don’t want trouble.”
“I’m not any trouble.” Her lips touched my ear.
“You’re somebody’s wife.”
“It was a terrible mistake—”
She leaned forward but I gripped her arms.
“Hold me,” she said. “Like you mean it.”
Her teenage-girl flirtatiousness was suddenly gone. Her brown eyes were serious.
I released her.
“Bill, tell me you love me.”
“I don’t know you.”
“You know me—”
“I just met you.”
Then she was weeping. I put my arms around her.
“You’re tired,” I said softly.
“Real tired,” she said. “Tired—”
“Can you get some sleep?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Will you try?” I said.
I helped her up and led her down the hall to the bedroom.
It was part-nursery, with a crib, a box of toys, a needlepoint sampler—“Monday’s Child is fair of face, Tuesday’s Child—”
The baby slept in the middle of the double bed.
Joyce turned toward me, putting her arms around my waist and her head on my shoulder.
“Kiss me just once.”
We kissed and it became something else. I pulled her tight against me, kissing her deeply, holding her slim back and then under her arms, touching her breasts, then stopped myself as we started to lean toward the bed. I stepped back, looking at her.
She was pretty and lonely and unhappy and sexy and, like me, she wanted to make love. She was married to my boss, who slept drunk in the living room with his dead animals and guns.
“You lie down now, all right?”
A brown bang fell across half her face.
“Bill.” She put out her hand and I held it.
She squeezed my hand and lay down next to the baby with her back turned.
Her forwardness in the kitchen had felt part-feigned, as if she mimicked some idea of how a wife began cheating on her husband. Her portrayal of the temptress seemed innocent, make-believe. She wanted someone to tell her he loved her.
She didn’t know me, she’d just met me, was all wound up, but I represented something that she missed to the point of tears.
She looked vulnerable in her tank top and jeans, her cheek against the bedspread, her knees drawn up like a kid. I saw the heart on her wrist.
“It’ll bring you good luck—”
I’m born a fawn—in meadow light …
I took a step toward the bed and Joyce lifted her head.
“Do you want me, Bill?”
“I do,” I said. “That’s why I better go.”
She put her head back on the pillow and I turned to the hall. I went through the living room, past Ray snoring on the couch under the moose, his shirt hiked above his white belly.
He was dead asleep. One beefy hand dangled to the carpet. From his present posture and his recent boisterous beery talk about grizzly bears, I could see how Joyce was tempted to stray. Multiply the morning a few hundred times and you had the makings of an ugly life.
I fought a sudden urge to spin around and go back to the bedroom and slipped out the door and down the curving bricks, then up the sidewalk past Ray’s new, red truck with the silver ram on the hood.
I walked slowly up the block toward where the houses ended at a buff-colored hill. From the last house you could see the whole town—the river and the three bridges, the tall building and church spires, the brick college and the stadium, and beyond the city, the Kootenays with their spring snow.
I looked across at the smokestack and the mill and sat down in the dry grass. I lay back, staring up at the cloudless, blue Big Sky.
I dreamed of the country beyond the door in Sleeping Child Lake, past the city made of stone. By a river, I was walking through sweet grass—the Sleeping Child carving was my passport and safe in my hand.
I reached the village that was silent, deserted. I gripped the antler Sleeping Child tight and bent forward, opening the hide flap of the first teepee.
A white papoose with closed eyes lay in the little boat and I knew he was the Sleeping Child.
A hand touched my shoulder.
“Bill, tell me you love me. I thought I kiss pretty well—”
Joyce put her arms around my neck and stepped backward, pulling me down onto the bear robe that smelled sweet like her skin, as a voice—Ray’s—yelled “Indian lover!” and the new Mossberg hit the lantern at Turtle Lake—
I woke up, watching the foreign sky, feeling the sharp grass against my neck.
Hundred Ox Pass glinted in the fat sun sinking toward the ridge. I sat up and saw the golden city by the winding river, the light falling across the valley toward the red snow peaks.
I walked through the orange grass to the pavement, then back down the street. As I reached Ray’s house I saw Tug’s pickup parked in the driveway. I went up the walk and knocked.
After a minute Ray opened the door. He wore a starched, Hawaiian shirt.
“There you are.” He grinned. “I told Tug, Joyce scared you off.”
“No. I went for a walk. There’s a nice view of the town.” I shook my head. “I guess I fell asleep.”
“Well, come on in. Tug’s been looking for you. They’re out back.”
I followed Ray through the living room and into the kitchen.
“The patio’s down that hall,” Ray said. “Go ahead. I’m getting something together.”
I went past two open doors and a service porch. I felt tense, half-expecting Joyce to step quickly from a corner and confront me, say she’d talked to Ray and the marriage was over.
In the fenced backyard, Tug and Denise lay together on a chaise lounge under the patio awning. A picnic table stood on the cement and across the shadowed lawn was a smoking, wheeled barbecue.
Joyce wasn’t there.
“There you are, partner,” Tug said.
“Hi, Bill,” Denise said.
“Where you been, bro?”
“I fell asleep on the hill.” I touched my pocket and felt the Sleeping Child.
“See, Denise. He’s a real cowboy. From Ori-gone. Can’t sleep in a bed. It ain’t for sleeping, is it, Bill?”
“Tug—” Denise pretended to slap his arm.
“Listen,” I said, “I feel like I should find a place to stay.”
Tug’s expression was sheepish. “I’ve been thinking I might bunk here.”
“That’s fine,” I said.
“What’re you looking for?” Denise brushed back her hair.
“Just a room.”
“I know a place. My friend’s the manager. We can go over if you want.” She turned to Tug. “You want to take a ride?”
“I feel pretty good right here.”
He pulled out his keys and dropped them in Denise’s open palm.
“I’ll pick you up tomorrow at 7:30 sharp, bro.”
“Tell Ray thanks,” I said.
Denise led me through the side gate to the front yard.
“Care if I drive?”
“No, you know the way.”
We got into Tug’s truck and Denise backed out and drove past the stucco houses that all looked the same.
“Tug told me about the window. No wonder you felt nervous.”
“People shooting at night.”
“I mean with Ray—”
“When was that?”
“When he brought out his gun.”
I didn’t answer and we came to the three-way stop.
“You known Tug long?”
“About a month.”
She smiled and started down the hill.
“He’s a good guy.”
“He is,” I said.
“He’s funny, and smart too.”
I nodded. It was true. I watched the empty, steel bleachers and the football field go by with its wrapped goal posts and white chalked field ready for the night.
“Joyce is nice,” Denise said.
“She is,” I said guardedly. I felt again Joyce’s body against mine and her open, eager kiss, her shapely figure in the jeans she’d put on. It had been a close thing and I was glad to be out of the house.
“We didn’t mean to be rude, going out for beer and not coming back.”
Denise turned left and drove three or four blocks past brick houses and rosy evening lawns and red maple trees, then turned right at a busy four-lane street. We followed it toward the river, through the business district of older, brick buildings, a laundromat, a real estate office, a sporting goods store with guns suspended in the window.
“You talk to Joyce, after Tug and I left?”
I watched a white ice cream parlor pass. Iron tables and chairs with heart-shaped wrought-iron backs were arranged on the sidewalk against the window.
“Ray’s loud when he drinks.”
“He’s friendly,” I said.
Denise looked straight ahead. I could see the bridge coming up and beyond it the tall building I’d seen from Hundred Ox Pass and then the bluff of dry grass.
“Joyce isn’t happy—”
“She isn’t?” I said.
“No, she’s not.”
“She’s got a baby.”
“It was an accident.”
“She’s smarter than Ray. She was a paralegal. She had a big practice. She helped a lot of people and never charged some of them.”
“Well, Ray must have his points.”
“I think she likes you—”
My spine tensed. She and Joyce had talked, while I’d slept on the hill, dreaming of Joyce pulling me down onto the bear robe in the village.
“She doesn’t know me.”
“I don’t know Tug.”
“Tug’s not married.”
“No, I know. It’s just that Ray—”
“Look,” I said. “Ray’s your brother. He’s also my boss and Tug’s brother-in-law. Joyce is Tug’s sister. It’s getting a little Egyptian, don’t you think?”
I was tired but also angry, maybe because I liked Joyce, I liked her kiss and her warmth, her breasts tight against my chest. I hadn’t cared about her snoring husband the first minutes we’d held each other and kissed in the bedroom. The curve of our bodies had fit instantly, smoothly, without fumbling or awkwardness, two halves falling perfectly into place. I had nearly pitched forward into a mess. Joyce was upset and desperate; she didn’t know me, but I knew that part of her wanted something to happen between us. I felt the same way.
Denise didn’t take offense. After a minute she said, “Joyce doesn’t go hunting anymore. She’s sick of it. And because of little Charlie.”
I was glad to change the subject.
“If you ever want to go out with Joyce, I could arrange it.”
But the subject was still the same.
“I don’t think so.”
“Ray wouldn’t have to know. He’d be gone, hunting deer and elk, all fall.”
“Joyce and I would know.”
“Joyce is a nice person. She’s not unfaithful.”
I didn’t answer. It depended what you were faithful or unfaithful to.
“Ray’s doing his secretary, at the mill—”
We started across the bridge, over some railroad tracks and freight cars and an observation tower, and then the river, wide, quick, and dark blue. On the other bank the tan building rose six or seven stories. It had an elaborate, old-fashioned movie marquee.
Now Playing—Wilderness Family
Next to the theater entrance, above a single glass door, bronze letters said, “Elgin Hotel.”
Denise slowed at a light, made a U-turn, and came back by the box office with its roof like a conch shell. She turned down a side street that went under the bridge to a parking lot. Across the river, just above the bank, was the train yard.
She parked next to a freight entrance.
“I think your stuff’s safe here. Let’s go see Gail.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“It’s nothing,” Denise said. “This has been a good day for me.”
I didn’t answer. I didn’t know if it had been a good day for me or not.
“Here,” she said, reaching for my shoulder. She plucked a dry tassel of grass from my shirt. “Turn around.”
She brushed my back.
“You been bunking with Tug’s bears?”
I hadn’t got enough sleep, my judgment wasn’t sharp, and after the several beers my future in Montana felt uncertain. Maybe tomorrow at work I’d see Ray’s secretary.
I met Denise’s friend Gail in a dusty, cluttered office with a roll-top desk and an oily, ceiling fan thick with lint.
She rented me a room on the third floor for ninety dollars a month, one month in advance, licking her fingertip as she counted quickly through the stack of twenties.
“I hope it’s all right,” Denise said. I hadn’t bothered to check out the room, eager to get clear of Ray’s growing household.
Denise helped me bring in my things from the truck and set them at the foot of the elevator. I thanked her again for everything and she gave me a hug.
“Good luck with Tug,” I said.
“Thanks. You’ll have to come over.”
“I will. After I get settled in.”
“You’re not angry—about what I said about Joyce?”
“No,” I said. “She’s a good person.”
“She is,” Denise said. “So are you, for seeing it.”
“Look at Tug and me. You never know—”
It’ll bring you good luck—
I touched the Sleeping Child in my pocket, in thanks for guiding me from the rifles at Turtle Lake and drunken Ray’s new Mossberg to the bedroom where Joyce and I kissed by the bed and her sleeping baby, Charlie.
“You never know,” I said.
“That’s right. Here—”
Denise lifted a paper from her back pocket.
“Joyce told me to give you this, if it seemed okay.”
Denise smiled wider and stepped quickly out the Elgin’s swinging doors as I unfolded the note:
Meet me Saturday at Sleeping Child.
I saw the heart at Joyce’s wrist, the green sugar bowl—now the sprouting horn between the stag’s wide antlers—as I rode the elevator to find where I lived.
Nels Hanson has worked as a farmer, teacher, and contract writer/editor. His stories have appeared in Antioch Review, Texas Review, Black Warrior Review, and other journals. Hanson lives with his wife, Vicki, on the Central Coast of California.