Some Good Things About Life
This is a story about my sister, Gwen, and my friend, Tom. At least, that’s what it started out to be.
I first tried to get them together when Tom was my intern at the Coastal Commission in Santa Cruz, and Gwen had just left her job at the Hilton in Tucson. She’d come to stay with my wife, Jo—who was then my fiancé—and me while she tried to decide what to do next. Gwen repainted our interior and stayed about a month. It was a pleasant fall. During that time, the four of us got together occasionally, and Tom clearly would have liked things to develop further between them, but Gwen showed no real interest. She was twenty-three at the time, just out of college, really. Tom was Jo’s age, twenty-six, and I was seven years older than the two of them.
The rains began in late November that year, about the time that Gwen found a position in pharmaceutical sales in Sacramento and moved away. Tom and I were working on development permits, and from time to time those projects would take us to the state capital, either together or individually. Gwen would meet us for lunch, or if I was there alone, sometimes I’d spend the night and leave the next morning after we’d played tennis and eaten breakfast. But whenever Tom was there by himself and tried to contact her, Gwen was always busy.
One Sunday night, wet and dark, when I knew that Tom would be in Sacramento later in the week, I phoned Gwen myself. Tom had already called her, she said, but she had plans the day he would be there.
I asked, “What gives, anyway? Don’t you like him?”
“I like him fine,” she said. “I just don’t like you shoving him down my throat. What are you, his personal manager?”
“You always said you wanted to meet someone who could be part of the family. He’s the closest thing I know.”
“That’s because he’s like your little brother. And he’ll play sports with you all the time.”
“He has a good heart,” I said. “He likes you.”
“I know. He’s a little too aggressive. Tell Jo hi. I may be down that way at the end of the month.”
I said, “I love you.”
“You, too.” She hung up.
Tom knew everyone, it seemed, in town. His father had been on the school board for years, and after his parents divorced when he was ten, his mother became a longtime nurse for the most popular pediatrician in the area. Tom had also gained notoriety as an All-American water polo player in high school, and then in college at Fresno State. After his undergraduate degree, he took six months to trek through Nepal, a place I’d always dreamed about visiting, and then returned to get his M.A. in Environmental Studies. He helped coach his old college team, then left to play professionally for a year in Australia.
When he returned, my boss, Meg Thomas, who jogged with his mother every morning, arranged for him to be my intern.
“You’ll be perfect together,” she said. “Teach him what he needs to know, and get him to dress the part. Then I’ll hire him full-time. And both of you stay in the office until five.” She wagged a finger at me. “No going out to play until then.”
I liked to get to the office early, before anyone else. I liked to watch the morning mist rise over the green-black mountains behind the campus and the first surfers in the gray water against the pale sky at the lighthouse. I liked to listen to the birds in the eucalyptus trees. I liked to sit at my desk and read the box scores in the newspaper with a mug of hot creamed coffee.
On Tom’s first day, he was waiting for me on the front steps with his bike leaning against the railing. He was dressed in chinos, flip-flops, and a T-shirt advertising a brand of Mexican beer. His hair was still wet. He handed me a muffin on a napkin.
“My mom made that,” he said. “Have you eaten? It’s seven-grain with cranberries. They’re killer. I was going to wear a tie, too. Meg said you would.” He gave me that smile for the first time. “She was right. The last time I wore a tie was my high school prom.”
“Who’d you go with?”
“Shucks.” He frowned. Those eyes danced. “I can’t even remember her name.”
I let us into the building. He wheeled his bicycle in after me and down the hall – a big bear of a young man who smelled like Old Spice and whom I knew immediately embraced life in a way I could only envy.
I asked, “Have you ever done permits before?”
“Never,” he said. “I don’t know squat. But I don’t think they should allow anything else to be built on the coast. It’s already too messed up.”
“Neither do I,” I said. “But the deal is, we still have to review the requests and look for things that are environmentally sound.”
“No such thing,” Tom said. “Say, this is nice.”
I said, “Just a regular office.”
“No, the quiet right now. And the early morning light.”
He began playing basketball with my regular group of guys up at the university after work that first afternoon and never missed a day that I can remember until Jo and I took the leave-of absences two years later to move up to northern Idaho to be near her family for the birth of our first child. After playing, after a steam and a shower, after the rest of us who were mostly older and married had gone home to dinner, I knew Tom’s prowls were often just beginning. Not only the amorous kinds either, though there were plenty of those. But also hikes into the mountains above Pescadero to try to spot a night owl that was going extinct, drives up the coast to San Francisco to hear some old blues guitarist he’d gotten bootleg recordings of, throwing a sleeping bag down on one of the hills behind the university so he could photograph the sunrise the next morning over the old pulp mills towards Ben Lomond.
But he was always there in the morning before I arrived, after swimming a thousand yards in the ocean and singing to gospel music cranked up on the stereo while he shaved. He was always there before me – usually joking and playing cards in the boiler room with Butch, the night janitor. Butch felt about him the same way as the copy clerks, and the secretaries, and Mrs. Fuentes, who ran the deli where we got our sandwiches at lunch and always put on extra avocado for him, no charge. Or his old neighbor, Pat, who was confined to a wheelchair, and for whom Tom, many nights, took for a walk before undressing him, washing him, and after helping him with his bathroom duties, tucked him into bed.
Was he good at his work? Yes. Did he learn how to dress? He bought three ties that went with the same five shirts. Was he a hard worker? In his own manner, he was. He managed to deny permits that I was stuck on for months just by the force of his personality. While he seemed to respect my tenacity regarding task analysis and thoroughness, his own style was decidedly more cursory and from-the-hip, preferring to make revisions on a sticky permit directly with a client over a game of racquetball to graduated meetings with assistants and underlings.
After several months, his results were clearly better than mine, and stayed so until Jo and I left, though I doubt very much that he knew that or would have cared one bit. Instead, he was unfailingly loyal and appreciative for what he apparently considered my experienced guidance. His older sister told me, not long after Tom and I started together, that he considered me his mentor and role model.
Jo loved him, too. He was usually around to our place for dinner once or twice a week. He ate prodigiously and shared with her a taste for desserts and old movies. Their favorites were musicals. I can remember many nights those first two years when my wife would ignore her lesson plans, and she and Tom would instead split a pint of ice cream on the couch and sing along to an old black-and-white film they’d found on a remote channel while I reviewed files for the next day at the kitchen table.
On the subject of my sister at the time, Tom was customarily matter-of-fact. “I like her,” he told me one morning after they’d first met. “A lot. But she doesn’t want anything to do with me. Oh, well.”
And I don’t think he thought much more about it. The women he did become involved with instead were like my sister in only one significant way that I could see: they were all very attractive. But, while my sister was quiet by nature, simple in tastes, and physically reserved, the women Tom dated in those days shared a kind of bawdiness and troubled past of one sort or another that Jo and I at first found surprising. His pattern with them was always the same: a passionate courtship of a month or two with extremely romantic and attentive demonstrativeness on his part. This was followed by several weeks of quiet reticence, during which he’d usually want to take a walk with me late some night to discuss a trait he’d discovered in the woman that bothered him—selfishness in one, a quick temper in another, perhaps a loud voice that became irritating when they were out with other people. Then, a sudden ending, which Tom always initiated with absolute honesty and finality—a period that often lasted the longest, while the woman inevitably mourned heavily and sought one or more reconciliations.
During this time, my sister dated rarely, and never anyone on more than a few occasions. She complained that Sacramento wasn’t the best place to be single, unless you were fond of country-western dancing. She tried that a few times, but said that although the people were nice, she couldn’t master the steps and felt out of place. On those occasions when we were together with Tom, they had begun a playful affection. Tom made a joke with her in front of us to the effect that they would certainly marry each other one day; it was just a matter of when, the question of a suitable dowry, and their disagreement over the type of ceremony. Tom wanted to get married barefoot on the beach at sunset, and my sister claimed a preference for a little chapel in Vermont where our father’s parents had wed that I don’t believe she’d ever even visited.
Tom cried the morning we left. He brought over muffins and coffee and waved goodbye in the front yard of that little, green-shingled cottage on Third Street above the cliffs and made no attempt to hide his tears. Neither did my wife as we drove away. She was three months pregnant, and there was the usual early-morning June fog.
“That will be the nicest place we’ll ever live,” she said.
“We’ll be back in a year.”
“Maybe,” she said. She cried some more as we headed up Highway 1 north of the gum factory. “I’ll miss him.”
The waves broke in a long line out beyond the Brussels sprout fields. I said, “Me, too.”
It was a gray, cool summer at Priest Lake when we arrived, the mildest, locals said, in forty years. We rented a log cabin on the lake near where Hunt Creek crossed East Shore Road, about twenty-five miles from where Jo’s parents had their farm down Happy Valley Cut off Route 57.
I went to work for the small Division of Lands office at Cavanaugh Bay. It was a pretty good job, nothing fancy: logging permits, lease deeds, land management issues, a new stretch of paved road that was something of a controversy between Coolin and the back of the local airstrip.
Jo spent a lot of time out at her parents’ place helping as much as she could with the big vegetable garden, the horses, and the cattle. In late June, I took a few days off, too, to lend a hand with the haying. There was just a little window of time to get it done with all the rain. Even then, we worked twelve-hour days, and no sooner did we get the last bail under tarp than the torrent began again, a rain that would last pretty much the rest of the summer and into the early fall.
For exercise, I bought a second-hand stationary bike and rode it in the woodshed after work while I read the morning paper from Spokane. Sometimes I went canoeing up toward the thoroughfare and back with Jo if she wasn’t at her parents’, or alone if she was. I picked huckleberries and learned to make jam. I took walks up to the falls. Because of the weather, the lake remained pretty empty, empty and lovely, green-gray.
I’d just finished making a fire after dinner one evening in early October, and was standing by the window watching the last pink-green light settle over the water, when Gwen called. Jo was at her folks’ helping her mother put together some scrapbooks.
Gwen asked, “So, how’s the weather?”
“Cool. Clear, though. Pretty fall leaves.”
“Want somebody for the weekend? I’ve got plane passes I need to use before they expire.”
“Sure.” I thought, passes? And when she paused, I knew there was something else.
“Do you have room for two?” she asked. “Tom wants to come, too.”
I sat down. “My goodness.”
“Well, it took you going before we could get together. I knew there had to be a reason to be happy you were leaving.”
“How long?” I asked through my smile.
“Labor Day weekend. I was down there for a sales meeting and bumped into him at a grocery store. He invited me to a lawn party at his dad’s house. We went walking on the beach afterwards, stayed up late talking. We’ve seen each other every weekend since. Usually, I go down there, but sometimes he’s up here for work.”
Gwen said, “I like him, Nick. Very much. Why didn’t you try to get us together sooner?”
I said, “I’ll slap you when I see you. I can’t wait to talk with Tom.”
“He’s right here,” she said. “And he says he doesn’t want to talk with some old forester. He says he loves your sister, and get ready to get your tail kicked in horseshoes or archery or whatever they play up there.”
Later, in bed after I’d told Jo, and long after I thought she was asleep, she asked, “Labor Day until now. What’s that, six weeks?”
I said, “About.”
They were holding hands when they got off the plane in Spokane, and from what I could see in the rearview mirror, they did most of the way to Coolin, too. Gwen was the more talkative of the two, and over dinner, looked to Tom for collaboration on the account of their relationship’s developments. While she talked, Jo pinched me under the table at the delight Gwen showed with Tom’s playful teasing. Later, with brandies in front of the fire, Gwen leaned against Tom’s knee, and he stroked her hair.
After we’d gone to bed, Jo said, “They seem to get along wonderfully.”
I said, “Tom’s quieter than I remember.”
“Gentler,” Jo said.
Tom had already swum to Eight Mile Island and back and had made coffee and huckleberry scones before any of us were awake. After breakfast, we went up Hunt Creek Road with Jo’s dad and mom to cut firewood and for a picnic. Tom was very excited to learn how to use the chainsaw, and insisted on helping Jo’s dad further when we got back to their farm by felling two dead pines next to their barn. While the rest of us watched football on T.V. and fixed dinner, Tom chopped and stacked the day’s rounds, and then walked the lower field with Jo’s dad to help bring in and feed the cows.
Jo’s mother had made pot roast, with potatoes and vegetables on the side. They were the best he’d ever tasted, Tom said. He had three helpings. And the huckleberry pie with homemade ice cream were the best ever created, Tom said. While I did the dishes, Tom picked out a Buckwheat Zydeco C.D. he found in Jo’s old collection, turned it up, and took turns dancing with the women while Jo’s dad clapped and stomped his foot and I laughed at the sink with the rest of them.
Gwen and Jo worked on a jigsaw puzzle when we got back to the cabin, and Tom and I drove down to the Showboat Inn to play some darts. Neither of us was any good, but we chided each other for old time’s sake just the same. Then we sat at a table with our glasses of beer and talked about work, old basketball cronies and such, until Tom finally said, “Gwen’s even better than I thought she’d be, Nick. God, she’s sweet.”
I smiled, I guess, and looked at my hands.
He said, “Your darn sister. Who would’ve thought? She’s too sweet for me.”
“Yeah, but does she love you right?”
“You bet!” Tom said, then went to the bar to get change for the pool table.
The next morning was blue, cool, and full of white light from the flat lake. I was already up when Tom got back from his swim, and was putting water on for coffee when he walked in from the porch with a towel around his waist.
He said, “God, this place is beautiful.”
“You’re losing your hair.”
“I’m your guest,” he said. “Lay off. And so are you.”
The four of us took the skiff over to Outlet Bay and hiked a little ways up Priest River near where it widens and deepens at the Dickenshoot. Tom wanted to learn how to fly fish, so for the next hour, we tossed lines on the dark, marbled pools under the freckled foliage along the bank. Jo and Gwen walked downstream a little ways and fished with lures against the fallen tree trunks in the fast water.
Dust drifted in the white streams of light under the orange and red leaves that spun in the small, cool breeze. I watched Tom practice the four count I’d taught him, his eyebrows knitted against the sunlight’s gleam on the water. It was too much of full day for real fishing, I knew, so after a while, I gave up and sat on a sandbar just upstream and below the bridge. Soon after, Jo and Gwen sloshed through the shallows and joined me. Tom kept at it.
The three of us ate lunch, then stretched out on the sun-warmed sand and napped. Perhaps it was an hour or so later when a shadow crossed our faces, and we woke up to see Tom grinning in his dripping waders, holding a lurching two-pound brown trout by the gills at the end of his microfilament line.
Of course, the only thing that would do for Tom was to build a fire on the spot and roast the fish right away. He’d read that nothing was as good as trout caught fresh and roasted immediately, which was true. While Jo and I built the fire, he talked Gwen into helping him gut and clean the fish. When she complained about the slime, he carried her squealing with laughter over his shoulder out into the river and threatened to drop her in. She beat at his big back, and then they fell onto the sand and wrestled.
Jo and I stood watching. The fire cracked. An osprey lifted from a tall, dead birch and called off over the trees. Jo put her arms around me.
“Your sister is really hooked, Nick,” she said. “Badly.”
I squeezed her and rubbed her big tummy that held our child.
I was sorry to see them go. Sorry because she was my sister and he was my friend, and sorry because, aside from Gwen’s folks, we had no one else that we were close to there. We saw Gwen’s best friend from high school and her husband now and then, but they had three kids and a struggling business, and it wasn’t the same as it had been when they were schoolgirls. Sometimes, there was a barbeque or staff party at work. But pretty much, we were our own company, especially as Jo got closer to full-term and became more and more tired. Many nights, she was in bed by eight or eight-thirty. I began to read a lot, mostly mysteries, which were pretty much all I could find at the little library in Nordham.
As fall had invaded summer, winter fell uncharacteristically early. It came a couple weeks before Thanksgiving, when we awoke to a different stillness, and there was a thin, white layer of snow on the beach, up the dock, on the roofs and tree branches, and on the open patches of ground. We made a fire in the fireplace, and then I cross-country skied down the path to Hunt Creek while Gwen walked behind. We found fresh scat and impressions in the dusting of snow under a spruce where two deer had bedded together. A family of quail huddled in the brush at the far end of the footbridge that crossed the creek. Their eggs looked like the rounded stones in the creek.
When we got back, I stomped the skis and poles on the porch and leaned them against the cabin. Jo laughed at the way our breath hung clumsily in the air. We went inside and I stirred the fire and dropped on another log. Jo put milk on the stove for hot chocolate. The message light was blinking on the answering machine. I pressed the button.
“I knew it was too perfect,” the voice said. Then crying.
Jo stepped in from the kitchen with a spoon in her hand. She said, “Gwen.”
I sat down on the couch and looked out at the lake. The sun had just cleared the top of the range behind the cabin, and already there was a wet stain where the snow had been at the end of the dock.
Jo’s delivery went pretty well for a first birth. She was very strong and more courageous than I could believe a person capable. Our daughter, Claire, had a little jaundice, but nothing serious, and we were home in three days. It’s said that nothing changes your perspective or priorities like the birth of your own child. I believe that is true. Suddenly, everything we planned in life, especially when whispered late at night as we held each other or when I was awake alone in the morning and the only sound was the lake lapping lightly at the dock pilings, began and ended with what was best for our daughter or for us as a family. I loved the way Claire smelled. I loved to rub my cheek against her bald head. I loved to get up early and watch her sleep. It made me ache.
Gwen stayed upset about Tom for longer than I thought she would. She was pretty bitter—partly, I suppose, because she had never been the one to get thrown-over before, partly because it had been a long time since she’d been so involved with someone, partly because she didn’t understand Tom’s abrupt change of feelings, but mostly, I believe, because she was truly in love with him. Really, she was just heartbroken. We talked on the phone a lot that early winter. After the baby was born, Gwen came up for a week. Some time after the first of the year, she seemed to come out of it a little bit; she got somewhat happier.
Tom did write us not too long after things ended with Gwen. He was deeply sorry, he said; it just didn’t work out. She was too good for him was the truth, he said. He hoped it wouldn’t affect our friendship, but he said that he would understand if we felt differently.
We didn’t, really, or at least, we tried not to. Gwen was Gwen, and Tom was still Tom. But things had changed some, shifted a bit; how could they not? We still saw him from time to time. We met to go skiing at Mt. Bachelor in March. We exchanged emails pretty regularly. He laid-over one night in Spokane on his way to a symposium in Calgary, but he had to leave early in the morning, so we only had time to drive in for a quick dinner together at his hotel.
Over a weekend in early May, I took a few extra days off and we drove back down the coast to Santa Cruz to see about returning there to live. We had a nice time seeing old friends, I got to play some basketball, and Claire loved the beach.
Tom was very excited to have me talk to Jim Rosenbaugh, Meg’s chief assistant, who was looking into starting a consulting firm and wanted Tom and me to come along with him. Jim’s plan was a sound one, and he already had all the backing he needed and several clients lined up with whom to begin, as well. The prospects for growth and financial advancement were considerable. Jim was about five years away from retirement, he said, and afterward, he would turn things over to us alone. When we were by ourselves, Tom banged his fist on the table and said that it was a once in lifetime deal, the sky was the limit.
Jo and I talked a lot about it on the way back to Idaho. I was pretty excited about the possibility; if it worked out, I thought we would finally be able to buy a house, and perhaps Jo would not have go back to work right away. Jo was mostly quiet about things until we got back. Then, a few days later, I found her crying on the porch after I returned from work. She said that she just didn’t want to leave. This was home to her, especially now with Claire, and she wanted to be near her family.
Things happen in life. Things change. A year before, I would have never believed that Jo could have given up her teaching; it was so much a part of who she was. Heck, before she became pregnant, we were looking into a dual-stint in the Peace Corps in Guatemala. But your priorities change, and as I said, for me, these largely surrounded my family. So, we stayed in Idaho on the lake. It was fine. There was very little stress, and it was a lovely place. When they weren’t at Jo’s parents, she, Claire, and I could spend more time together than we probably would have in Santa Cruz.
That was several years ago. Gwen hasn’t met anyone else special yet, though she dated a couple of doctors with whom she’s remained on friendly terms. In another year or two, she’s hoping she’ll have enough time in with the company to be considered for a transfer to a city nearer the coast. It’s cooler there in the summer. She’s recently joined a co-ed tennis league and is enjoying it. She’s looking at purchasing a townhouse up near Placerville where the prices are comparatively low. That’s an area near Sacramento that’s ready to grow, she says, and that she’s sure would be a safe investment.
Tom and Jim did begin the consulting firm in the spring of that next year. It took off faster than either of them could have hoped. They were going great guns and were about to open a second office in San Jose, when Tom surprised everyone by announcing that he was moving to Boulder, Colorado, to start a kind of environmental think tank with a guy he’d met on a white-water rafting trip in Wyoming.
He called me on the phone late one night and left a message about it, excited as could be. “I’m going to get a place like yours,” he said. “A chalet in the mountains or something, and learn to kayak.”
He did both of those things and more. The think tank was very successful, and he was appointed to some federal panel by the Secretary of the Interior to make recommendations on wetlands regulations. Then, Jo saw him one day on a national talk show as the volunteer director for Special Olympics in the Rocky Mountain states. She said he looked great; she got tears in her eyes watching a video clip of him helping a teen-aged boy cross the finish line in a race.
Tom never shared with us any of these things. He mostly told us about his cabin, about kayaking and fishing, and about his dog, Pal. He joked that we had his baby on our refrigerator, a photograph of Pal and him in front of a campfire, and he had ours on his.
I don’t know a great deal regarding Tom’s love life because it wasn’t obviously anything we communicated about much. A couple of times when we called, a woman answered, but it was a different voice each time, and he didn’t say anything about who she might have been. Truth be known, we’ve fallen out of touch somewhat. I saw Meg Thomas last May when we were both in Portland, and she said that she’d heard from Jim Rosenbaugh that Tom had been seeing a woman from Costa Rica for almost a year, but that things had soured when she began talking about starting a family.
Now, Jo and I are thrilled because we are expecting our second child in August: a boy. Claire is excited, too. We’re going to call him Paul, which is a name that has been in my family for some time. It was my grandfather’s name and my uncle’s. I like the way it sounds: friendly and solid. A name for someone who would help you if your groceries fell out of your bag. A little boy. I can’t believe it.
My work is fine. I’ve begun to do more with larger timber grants, which allows for more challenge, as well as travel to Boise, and occasionally, Seattle or Portland. Jo never did try to go back to teaching after we returned from Santa Cruz. Now, with the new baby on the way, we’ve decided that we can manage without her working again at least until both the kids are in school. We haven’t bought a place either, but her parents are getting ready to semi-retire and give up the farm, and we’ve talked recently about buying that at low installments. We’d build a little apartment over the garage for them, and Jo’s dad could still keep some beef cattle and milk a cow or two. I’d help him with the livestock and, of course, with the pasture and haying, too. Jo’s excited about Claire and Paul growing up around animals and so much open space, like she did.
I got bored with the stationary bike all the time, so I bought a used stair machine, and now I try to do twenty minutes on both, three times a week. It’s not exactly the three-on-three games we used to have up at the university, but my weight is down almost to what it was in my college days, so that’s good.
I’ve also begun building bat houses and learning about bats in this area. They’re fascinating, helpful creatures. I’ve joined the Volunteer Fire Department. Yippee. And I’ve been thinking of taking clarinet lessons. I’ve always wanted to learn to play an instrument, and I heard a report on NPR about an old jazz musician from New York who’s going to put his method on C.D. Claire likes music already. Maybe Paul will, too, or bats, or fishing, or basketball.
When I was back in college, I did some volunteer work in a convalescent hospital, feeding the patients lunch and things like that. There was one old lady in particular who made a special impression on me: Mrs. Downing, who had a room on the first floor near the cafeteria. She was almost a hundred years old, had no family left, and lacked any ambulatory self-control. I used to feed her in her room quite a bit. Most days, when I walked in with her tray, she was lying in bed, a thin smile creasing her wrinkled face, looking out the window. She was smiling because she’d seen the birds she waited for everyday come to the dumpsters outside the cafeteria. An orderly told me that she and her husband had been some big society types in their day, and there she was, her existence reduced to the small bit of joy that birds brought her who came to the garbage cans outside the hospital cafeteria at mealtime.
This is a story, as I said, about my sister, Gwen, and my friend, Tom. It’s about them and how things didn’t work out like I might have hoped between them at the time. It’s about them, how things change, and some of the good things about life.
William Cass lives and works as an educator in San Diego, California. His fiction has appeared in more than forty literary journals and anthologies.