Short Fiction

BURNED, Part Two, Chapter 1

 

Part Two
Bill
1
(Eight years before the fire)
 
            Bill stood and watched Mary’s pain unfold in cramps.  She had noticed spots of blood earlier in the evening as they sat down to dinner, and now the spots had become small rivulets of blood running down her thighs as she lay back on the hospital gurney, her knees elevated by plastic covered pillows. The blood dripped onto large absorbent pads the ER nurses laid underneath her.   Its color turned a dark, rusted brown as it spread throughout the fiber mesh of the pad and dried.  They were waiting for her OB-GYN to arrive at the hospital, but Bill knew their second child was not going to be born this night.  It’s too early, he thought, too damn fucking early. 
            Mary was only 18 weeks along, at best.  Bill held her hand as she writhed with each contraction and placed his other hand on her forehead, brushing back her bangs, already damp with sweat.  His eyes teared up, but he refused to let her see them, surreptitiously wiping them dry whenever she was preoccupied with her own pain. 
            I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry! She kept repeating that phrase, but Bill said nothing in response.  He’d stopped trying over a half hour ago when it became clear she wasn’t apologizing to him, but to their unborn baby.  The one Bill knew she was never going to hold in her arms, never breast feed, never open a savings account to put money away for college and never going to place in the crib in their bedroom, bundled up in Jake’s old baby blankets.
* * *
            Only that morning they had sat in their pew at Church, Mary smiling at him as they sang “What a Friend I have in Jesus” her voice and its perfect pitch masking his own as he muttered through the words, as he always did, ashamed of his inability to stay in tune.  She was wearing a new dress, a soft pink with white lace around a modified halter.  She wore her long sleeved white cotton sweater unbuttoned to cover her back and shoulders.  Not the perfect color combination in his opinion, but as she told him while they dressed the only other choice she had was the purple shawl he’d given her for her birthday, and that would have been far worse (though he wasn’t exactly sure why—he thought they looked beautiful together). 
            After the service, the women had flocked around her, and he wandered away to talk to some of the men he knew about the football game coming up, and whether he still planned to play for the Church’s young men’s basketball team this year.  Two is a lot harder than one, said Tom, one of his friends.  You just wait and see, they’ll run you ragged, and Bill had nodded, not paying much attention.  He kept glancing over at Mary when she laughed at something one of the women said.  Her smile spread out from the crowded corner where she held court and he swore it filled the entire nave with its radiance, before he laughed at his own besotted infatuation with his wife.
            What do you want this time?  Boy or girl?  This question came from the Preacher who, after finishing his handshaking duties had wandered over to join the younger men around Bill.  He was young himself, only thirty-three and Bill suspected he missed the days before he got his own congregation and had to spend half his time listening to the all the complaints of  the church’s older women, and all the “advice” freely and frequently received from its older men, especially the ones who had hired him.
 
            Oh … I don’t know, Bill said.  It would be nice if Jake had a little brother, maybe, but a girl would be nice, too.  Either one.  It doesn’t matter to me.
            Stick with boys.  Trust me.  Everyone laughed then.  The Preacher had three girls, each spaced a year apart.  The oldest was nine.
            Do you know the sex yet? Someone else asked.
            No.  We have a sonogram scheduled for next week I think. I’m not sure Mary wants to know to be honest. 
            Like a surprise, eh?
            Bill smiled, but before he could answer, Mary was at his side.  Excuse me gentlemen, but I am reclaiming my husband before he becomes even more of a reprobate than he already is.
            Too late for that, said Tom.  He got his Ph., D in reprobating last year!  The men roared at Tom’s jibe and Bill could feel his cheeks warming.  The curse of being a redheaded Irishman was that everyone always knew when you were embarrassed.
            Well you would know Tom, seeing as how you’ve been his main instructor for as long as I’ve known the two of you.  I sure hope you weren’t the one who gave him his oral exam.  This time the laughter was even worse, but it didn’t last long.  Other women began pulling their husbands aside and the crowd began to thin out.  The preacher waved good-bye to the two of them, and went in search of his own wife and daughters.
            Time to get Jake from the nursery, honey.  Mary’s voice sounded tired.
            Oh, right.  I’ll meet you by the car, Ok? 
            The nursery was down in the basement.  Bill had skipped two stairs at a time, but he needn’t have bothered.  Jake, almost four now, was the last child left in the converted playroom.  The Stanton’s girl, Pam, all of 16, gave him a nod and then turned to where Jake sat playing with a pile of over-sized Legos. 
            Hey, Jakey-poo.  Look who’s here.
            Daddy! 
            Jake ran over and rammed Bill’s leg so hard he almost lost his balance.  Hey little man, you been good for Pammy while I was gone?
            Don’t worry, he’s been a little angel, Mr. Murphy.  I wish all the kids were so well behaved.
            I’m always good, Daddy.
            Yes you are, little man, yes you are.  Wanna go find Mommy and head home?
            We get a Happy Meal?
            Oh, so you think you’ve been good enough for one of those, do ya?
            Uh-huh.
            Well, let’s see what Mommy thinks, okay?  Now say thank-you to Pam for watching over you.
            Tank’s for watching me, Pammy.
            It was my pleasure, Jakey.  I’ll see you next Sunday, Okay?
            You betcha!  Bill had to stifle a laugh at that, but Pam didn’t even try.  You are such a card, she said when she stopped giggling.  Bye now, you two.
            Bill thanked her, Jake said goodbye and then they headed up the stairs. 
            Why’d she call me a card Daddy?  I’m not a card.
            Oh, I just think she likes you Jake.  It’s just something people say.
            Oh.  Jake thought about that for a moment as Bill hustled him out the door to the parking lot.  I guess I can be a card then.
            I guess so.
            When they got to the car, Bill found Mary slumped over the hood of the car.  She weakly lifted her head when she heard them approach.
            I didn’t have my key, she said.  I think I need a nap. I just felt so tired all of a sudden.
            Bill opened her door for her and used his free arm as a support to help her slide into the passenger seat of their Civic.  Then he strapped Jake into his car seat in the back on the driver’s side.  Jake looked over at his mother, her head leaning against the window.  No Happy Meal? 
            Sorry, Tiger.  I don’t think Mommy’s feeling up to it.  I’ll make you a sandwich when we get home.  Grilled cheese sound good?
            Okay.  With tomater soup?
            Suer thing.
            Bill shut the back door, and then climbed into the front seat.   Mary’s head propped up by a small pillow they always kept in the car and her mouth open, she had already fallen asleep.  The best part of Bill’s day had already passed and he hadn’t even known it at the time.
* * *
            Alone, Bill sat in the waiting room at the hospital, while they cut and scraped her uterus out.   The OB-GYN had said they had no choice but to do a D and C.  Her miscarriage was going badly.  The baby (the doctor had called it a fetus) was likely already dead, rejected by her body for God knows what reason.  He gave permission for the procedure.  Delirious from the pain, the nurses had finally sedated her after the ER doc got permission over the phone for her OB-GYN, a woman Bill had never met until that night.  Mary couldn’t have made the decision, drugged and unable to put two coherent thoughts together.  Bill suspected she had no idea she was even in the hospital, nor that she would lose her baby, and he did he feel up to trying to tell her these things.
            He tried to work on a crossword puzzle in a newspaper he’d found on the floor by a table with magazines indiscriminately scattered on its pine wood surface.  He’s taken Jake to their next-door neighbors who lived in the same duplex as Bill and Mary.  Mark and Judy had a little boy roughly Jake’s age and the two boys knew each other well from innumerable play dates.  Bill acted as if it was a surprise sleepover for Jake’s benefit, but Jake was upset, squirming on his arms and calling for his mother as Bill handed him off to Judy. 
            I’ll be back soon, Tiger, as soon as Mommy is done seeing the doctor, but Jake had kept calling after him as he pulled their old Honda Civic out of the driveway and onto the street.  Why hadn’t Judy hadn’t taken him inside and closed the door?  Don’t let Mommy die!  Daddy!  Don’t let Mommy die!  That was the last thing Bill heard as he drove off.  Mary had heard him also, but she was in too much pain to call back to him any reassurances a three-year-old might have accepted.  Bill placed a towel over her seat, but it was soaked through with her blood by the time they reached the hospital.  One of their good towels, from the set they’d received as a wedding present three and a half years ago.  The towels they’d never used before.
* * *
            D&C— dilation and curettage—that’s what the doctor had called it.  Dr. Gibson-Myles.  Call me Sharon, she told him with a cheerful tone that Bill found jarring. Dilation & Curretage was the standard procedure whenever a miscarriage occurs after 10 weeks she said, speaking slowly and evenly.  She said it would be best for go in and make sure all the endometrial tissue (Bill had to have that term explained to him) was removed safely and completely, otherwise there was a risk that Mary’s uterus might become infected.  Bill felt she had treated him like a child, the way she talked. 
            I’m studying for my Master’s in forensic science, he told her.  Oh, she said, how nice for you, and then she continued describing the procedure to him as if he no more than twelve years old.  After she continued in this vein for another minute, he stopped her.  I get it.  I understand.  Do what you need to do.  She looked at him for a moment, bemused, and then continued.
            The ultrasound we ran showed some tissue was still attached and the fetus hasn’t been evacuated yet.  I can’t tell you how long it might take for Mary’s miscarriage to run its course, and I’m a little concerned about the amount of blood she’s losing.  I recommend the procedure so we can end the pain she’s having as soon as possible, and because I want to make sure that she’s not hemorrhaging.
            The baby…? Bill’s voice trailed off.
            I’m sorry, she answered him, touching his arm.  We couldn’t locate any fetal heartbeat.  Even if the fetus is still alive, which I have to tell you is very unlikely at this stage, it wouldn’t survive the miscarriage. 
            But it might be alive?
            Mr.Lawson , it’s too soon.  Mary has been pregnant for 17 or 18 weeks at the most.  We’re still a good six weeks away from any chance your child could survive outside the womb, even if it is still alive—and as I told you we found no fetal heart rate.  I’m truly sorry.  I wish I had better news for you and your wife.
            Bill looked over at Mary, lying on the gurney already prepped for surgery.  An IV needle had been stuck into a vein in her left arm.  That was how the nurse had given Mary the sedatives and muscle relaxants to help with her cramping.  He stared at drops of some unknown liquid falling from a plastic bag the plastic tubing that delivered those drops into Mary’s vein.  She had groaned as he looked down on her, but softly, her eyes closed against the harsh lights of the room in the hospital’s surgical center where she now rested.
            Mr. Lawson?  Bill turned to look at the doctor, his reverie broken.
            I’m sorry, he said.  Were you saying something?
            Mr. Lawson—
            Bill.  Please.
            Bill, you need to sign some paperwork to grant your informed consent—on Mary’s behalf— for the procedure.  Unfortunately, the doctor ordered sedation before I arrived, before Mary could sign the necessary consent forms.  The hospital requires someone, usually the husband, to act on her behalf when a woman is unable to consent on her own.  I apologize for that, but it’s a requirement before we can proceed.  Do you have any questions?  I’m fairly certain we went over everything, including the slight risk of perforation or infection, which is also listed in the forms if you’d like to read them, but I’d be happy to discuss anything you may have a concern about.  Anything at all.
            You’ve done these—procedures before?
            Yes Bill, many times.  I can’t give you an exact number but it’s a very common procedure.  I probably do one or two on average every week.
            Bill remembered Jake’s last words to him as they had left for the hospital.  Poor Jake.  He’d seen all the blood, heard Mary’s screams, been dumped with Judy in the middle of the night with no understanding of what was going on. Probably scared still, unable to sleep, worried that his mommy was never coming home.  Bill had to ask.
            Have you ever had anyone…I mean has anyone ever …
            No, Bill.  Not one.
            Bill sighed.  Okay.  I’ll sign what you need.
            Thank-you, Bill.  I’ll have the nurse come in and with the paperwork for you.  If you have any questions about them, just ask.  You’ll excuse me, but I’ve got to go now and get ready.  The nurse should be just a minute.
            Okay.  Thanks.
            The doctor nodded and left.  Fifteen minutes later, two nurses and an attemdant wheeled Mary down to the operating room, and another one took Bill to a small lobby with padded chairs a couch.  On a small table he found piles of magazines he’d never read before, magazines for young parents, mostly.  He was still struggling with the crossword puzzle when the Dr. Gibson-Myles entered.
            Mr. Lawson?
            Is she okay?
            She’s doing fine.  We did find a slight tear—very small tear—in her uterine wall, but we sutured her up and she’s fine now.  That tear was the cause of her excessive bleeding.  She can go home tomorrow afternoon unless the bleeding resumes.  I just want her to stay at the hospital overnight to make sure those suture will hold.  We had to use general anesthesia, so as soon as they move her out of recovery, one of the nurses will come and get you so you can see her.  She may be a little nauseated and groggy, but you should be able to talk with her.
            The baby?
            I’m sorry.  The fetus was already dead when we removed it.
            I see.  A numb feeling came over him when he heard her answer even though he had expected it.   
            I apologize, but I need to go.  Again, Mr. Lawson—Bill--I’m very sorry for your loss.  I’ll speak with both you and Mary tomorrow, if you like.  The hospital also has a grief counselor available who will also stop by sometime tomorrow.
            Grief counselor?  Bill was confused.
            Yes, she said, the hospital has grief counselor who works solely with parents that lose a child, and we consider a miscarriage as much of a loss for expecting parents as the loss of any other child.  You don’t have to speak to her, of course, but I do recommend it.  Mary is going to be very upset over the next few weeks.  You will be also, I expect.  It’s a normal reaction.  The doctor paused for a moment, as if carefully considering what to say next.  I don’t mean to say that it will feel normal to you, of course, just that many couples go through a mourning process after a pregnancy ends in a miscarriage.  The counselor can explain it better than I.  She’s really a very nice person and many couples in your situation have found she’s been very helpful to them.  Here, let me give you her card.  I think I have one on me – here it is.  She handed a stiff white card with black lettering to him and he flipped it over to read the name:  Joan Obedija, MSW. 
            I hope you’ll agree to meet with her and hear what she has to say.
            I—okay, I … Bill groped for what to say.  We’ll meet with her if Mary wants to. Thanks. He wanted to say more, but whatever words he meant to say to her dissolved on his tongue like sugar in a cup of coffee.
            Okay, then.  The doctor smiled wearily.  I’ll see you tomorrow.  Try to get some rest yourself.  Goodbye now.  She started out the door.
            Doctor?  Bill had finally remembered what he wanted to know.  One more question. Please.
            She turned back to face him. A small look of irritation spread across her face before she cut it off.  Yes?
            The baby—I’m sorry to keep you—but the baby … was it—I mean was it …
            It was a girl, Mr. Lawson.  Bill sagged visibly.   He hadn’t expected a girl.  The doctor took her hand and placed it on his shoulder.  Why don’t you lie down on the couch over there and try to sleep a bit.  I’ll let the nurses know to wake you when Mary’s anesthesia wears off.
            All right, he said.  He watched her walk down the hallway, still wearing hospital slippers and the light green scrubs she must have worn while in the operating room.  After a few moments, he turned away and returned to the same chair he’d been sitting in before, picked up the crinkled newspaper and resumed work on the crossword puzzle.  The nurse who came for him an hour later found him asleep with his head tilted back, his face pointed toward the ceiling.  The newspaper was scattered on the carpet at his feet, the puzzle unfinished.  His right hand, however, now balled into a fist, still firmly grasped the pen he’d been using.

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The Falls - Part 3

 

II.

            My son, James Jr., all of nineteen, looks so handsome standing up there next to the Episcopalian priest, Mark somebody, who agreed to officiate at the funeral though we have never attended his church.  A man nearing sixty, he’d worked with James on numerous boards for various non-profit charities, but principally for the homeless shelter that James had established.  Not surprisingly, they both met at an AA meeting.

            The church is old.  The pews, claustrophobically close together, were made for an era when people were shorter and thinner.  They give off the rich scent of old oak polished and buffed frequently with expensive oils.  Everyone in attendance here today has money, mostly old money.  What must they think of the section cordoned off at the back reserved for the staff and residents of the shelter James established?  Then again, they knew what had become of him these last two decades, his passions and eccentricities.  If he had been more involved in his philanthropic pursuits than they, well, people like James were not a complete surprise among the denizens of their little world.   He had been an outlier, but not enough of one to be remarkable, at least not until he died the way he did.

            Seated in the front row, as the widow between my mother-n-law and my sister, I do not turn around to gaze upon them.  I do not want to see their faces, nor do I want them to see mine.  They are of a piece, people who have all known each other from childhood, or who might as well have, with only a few overachieving strivers intermingled among them.  Their large expensive homes and pedigrees are of a kind, long established, well maintained and a bit stuffy.

            I never felt comfortable around them at the many dinners and social events I was required to attend over the last twenty years.  So long ago, now, it seems since that fateful day when we were married, in a church not unlike this one, on the last day of July, 1989.  I hadn’t believed it possible that such a grand wedding could be arranged so quickly, but James’ mother and his older sister had simply taken over the process, hired a wedding planner, and made all the arrangements.

            Poor dear, they said to me constantly.  A shame you have no mother to help you.  A terrible shame she died so young.  But don’t worry, we’ll take care of everything.  You’ll see, it will all work our fabulously.

            Oh, those weren’t their exact words, but that was the gist.  They pushed me to the side, leaving me to make only the most minor of minor decisions: whether to have gilt lettering on the napkins for the reception, what sort of cake to order—though not the design, of course—and the choice of meat or fish as the main entrée, nothing much else.  I didn’t even choose my own dress.  The two of them engaged a fashion designer they patronized to prepare a proper gown to their specifications.  I imagine they were afraid I’d choose something too gaudy or tacky if left to my own devices.  My sister back in Ohio had her hands full with her children, and, to be honest, her alcoholic husband who was between jobs, to come and offer me even moral support, not that she could have been a bulwark against their insistent charm.  

            Deep down they must have been suspicious of me, a young woman of 22 who had just graduated from a state university with a degree in biochemistry, a scholarship student from a working class family raised by her father as a single parent.  He was a welder who worked for GM for thirty years before he took early retirement at fifty-five.  My older sister was married to a construction worker who got her pregnant in her senior year of high school. James’ family knew my mother had died in a car accident when I was five, so perhaps they were willing to make allowances, though I never got the impression that they had the least bit of understanding for what that had meant to me.    In general, we, my father, sister and I, were not the sort of people with whom they associated or whose lives they took much interest in.

            They must have wondered what James, already a junior partner in his father’s law old-line San Francisco law firm, and eight years my senior, saw in me.  Here he had lived with his former girlfriend for nearly three years and then James presented me to them as his ready-made blushing bride, fresh off a whirlwind romance; a girl out of some ridiculous modern day fairy tale—a story I myself thought, in my more insecure moments, was too ludicrous to believe. At first, they were a bit stiff toward me, wondering, I’m sure, if I was some common little “slut” who had picked James up on the rebound, looking to marry into money.  In the end, though, I think they saw me as the equivalent of a mail order bride, a stopgap measure until someone more suitable came along.  In short, I was someone to for them to pity. 

* * *

            My father arrived two days before the wedding and they put him up at the Fairmont Hotel in downtown San Francisco, the same hotel where our reception was held.  I think he was shocked when he first saw James and I, and all of James family’ together at the airport just for him.  My father was wearing jeans and an old golf shirt.  The tattoos on his arms from his days in Vietnam, and the rest of his appearance presented a great contrast to James and his father, wearing their expensive Italian business suits, having just come from work.  They’d rented a limo to take to him the Fairmont hotel. James and I were also staying there, also, until after the wedding, when we flew up to Vancouver to begin our honeymoon. 

            They took him out to a fancy steak house that night, and I had to convince him not to order the cheapest item on the menu, a $20 hamburger.  While everyone else drank champagne, he sipped his Bud Lite, rarely speaking and then only in as few words as possible.  I had never seen him so quiet, so intimidated before.  This was my father, after all, who had served two tours in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot and been awarded two purple hearts.  The man whose mustache ran down the sides of mouth until it met up with his sideburns on either side, forming one continuous rope of hair.  The man who shaved his head bald because he thought it made him look more badass when riding his Harley chopper with his biker friends on the weekends. 

            Later that evening after he raided the mini-bar in his room, and shared some Jack Daniels from a little bottle with me, he asked me if I knew what the hell I was getting myself into.

            I was watching your boyfriend’s family all night, he said.  Don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t think these are people you can trust.  They don’t come out and say it, but it’s clear from the way they talked and acted they could give a rat’s ass about you.  These aren’t the type of people you’re used to dealing with, honey, lawyers and big shots.  Don’t you see the way they treat you?  It’s like you’re a piece of dog shit they stepped in by accident and can’t wait to scrape off their boots.

            That was uncalled for, I shot back.  They’ve always treated me with … treated me properly.  And what does it matter, anyway?  I’m marrying James, not his parents.

            Oh, is that how you think it is?  Well, trust me Laurie, the world don’t work that way.  That boy may be crazy for you now, but what happens in a few years when things aren’t going so well, and his folks start to put a full court press on that they’d prefer a different mother for their grandchildren?

            That’s not going to happen, I said.  I know what I’m doing James loves me and I love him.  Didn’t you always tell me that was the only real thing that mattered?  You and Mom were pretty different, too, and you managed.

            Yeah, we were, he replied.  She was a good little Catholic school girl, wearing her cross and her rosary beads and saying her prayers every night, and I was just a punk back then who cared more about working on my bike and wasting time with my fucked-up friends.  Her old man—your Grandpa— hated my guts.  He never thought much of me until I volunteered for the Army rather than wait to be drafted.  That’s when he finally agreed to let your mother and me get married.  Maybe he thought I was gonna get my ass shot six ways to Sunday and come home in a body bag saving his little baby girl the trouble of a messy divorce.  Who knows?

            But you and Grandpa Dix became friends.  Even after Momma died.

            That stopped him.  He’d never remarried after she was run over by a drunk driver one evening walking home from the dry cleaners where she worked.  I’d asked him about it once but all he’d said was that after my Mom no other woman much interested him.  I waited while he thought about what he wanted to say.

            Yeah, yeah we did, he said, finally breaking the silence, but your grandpa had been in the Marines and fought the Japs in the Pacific.  And I’d changed a lot after I got back from Nam.  I lost a lot of that angry, acting out, just plain stupid crap I’d stored up inside me all those years when I was a kid.  When I came back to your Mom, when I got back to the States and got my discharge, all I wanted was some peace, you know?  A normal life with your mother and some kids.  Even if they ended up being two whiny little brats like you and your sister. 

            He laughed when he said that, but not in a mean way.

            Your Grandpa Dix saw that in me, you know.  He knew how I thought, what I’d done, because … because he’d been there himself, he’d done the same things, seen the same stuff I had.  We had a connection I guess you’d call it, even if we never talked about it.  That’s a helluva a lot different than this, this—

            He stood up and waved his hands and arms around in the air, then, before losing his balance and falling awkwardly back down on the king size bed in his room.  I didn’t say a word, just let him struggle to sit back up while staring him right in the eyes.  When he turned away, I knew the argument was over.

            You always were a stubborn little thing.  He sounded defeated.

            I had a good teacher, I said back.

            Yeah, s’pose you did, didn’t you?

            I’ll be fine, Daddy.  His family isn’t like ours, sure, but it’s still a family.  It’ll work out, you’ll see.  No one will work as hard as I will to fit in with them.  I’m not going to lose his love, I just know it.  It’ll be just like you and Momma, you’ll see.  I’ll find a way to … connect, with them.  Just wait and see.

            That steak I had was a piece of crap, you know.

            Dad!

            He laughed and reached out his arms and beckoned me over to his bed. 

            Come here and give your old man a hug goodnight. 

            I came over and sat on his lap, and he hugged me and kissed my neck.  I was his little girl again.  I didn’t mind that his mustache tickled my ear and scratched the tender skin beneath it, nor did I pull myself away from him, as I always had when I was younger.  He crawled into bed and I pulled the covers over him, and sat with him for ten minutes, as he slowly drifted off to sleep.

* * *

            The morning for our wedding came.  As my Dad walked me down the aisle, stuffed into his an uncomfortable tuxedo, the music playing, and James waiting for me up near the altar, he started bawling right there in the church.  Copious tears, and great sobs the like of which I had not heard from him ever, not even when my mother died, and he had stood stoically at the gravesite, holding the hands of my sister and I, two little girls ages seven and five, both hugging our Teddy bears.  We had to stop for a good half minute so he could compose himself, while everyone stared at such a strange sight.  I glanced at James only once, but he had his usual bemused smile on his face, that always seemed to pop out whenever something unexpected happened.  He appeared unconcerned, so I turned back to my father, and after a bit he motioned he was ready to go on. 

Sorry, lambkin, he muttered to me, I’m so sorry.  When we arrived at the front of the sanctuary, he took my arm and gave it to James, but I reached back and kissed him on on the cheek.  I love you Daddy, I whispered in his ear and he gripped down hard on my shoulder giving it a quick squeeze before releasing me.  When the priest asked the traditional question, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” Dad answered in a loud voice “Her mother, her sister and I do” but his tears were freely flowing again, and I started to cry too, watching him stand there.

            Later, at our reception in the Crown Room, he gave a meandering, blubbery toast from the head table.  It was clear he’d had too much to drink, and that also was unexpected for me, because I’d never seen my father drunk before in public, much less acting this way, having completely lost control of himself and his emotions.  The inarticulate sadness in his words, as they came rambling out, shook me.  He spoke as if we would never see one another again, as one might speak at someone’s deathbed.  Every member of James’ family looked endured his speed with pinched expressions on their faces.  To them he was spoiling the occasion, acting the part of some maudlin fool who wandered into the wrong play.  After he couldn’t finish the traditional father-daughter dance at the reception, James’ mother and his oldest sister came up to me and asked pointedly if perhaps he shouldn’t be quietly removed from the ballroom and taken back to his own room.  It was very clear what answer they expected.

            Just leave him be, I said.

            Laurie—dear, your father is making a spectacle of himself, James mother insisted.  Is this really how you want your wedding to be remembered?  We have to consider our other guests feelings as well.  This is a celebration, not some Irish wake.

            I was furious when she said that.  She had no right, none whatsoever.  What did she know about my father or our life together?  I wanted to slap her, but I held back and tried my best to keep my anger from showing.

            He’s my father.  His wife, my mother, died when he was 38.  He raised two daughters by himself.  I’m all he has left and this is my wedding day.  He stays until he wants to leave.  If that makes anyone uncomfortable, well I’m sorry.

            I walked away from them then, though I could fell their uncomprehending and tightlipped stares bouncing off my back, and went over to my father and held his hand and talked to him, not about anything special, until he cheered up a bit.  Out of the corner of my eye, I could see James talking to his parents, who looked extremely irritated.  What he said to them that night I never discovered, but it must have soothed things over.  Shortly after that, my father wandered over to where the caterer had set up the open bar. He chatted up the bartenders and the catering staff.  I don’t think he spoke to anyone else the rest of the night, and, for my part, James shepherded from table to table, introducing me to assorted family friends, distant relations and business clients.  I avoided talking to his family as best I could.  James told me not to worry, he could handle his family, so I pretended I didn’t, which seemed to satisfy him.  How little we understood each other. 

            Now, sitting here at his memorial service, next to his mother and two sisters, seeing their tears, especially those of my mother-in-law, weeping softly for her only son, I am the one who feels pity.  I pass my mother-in-law some tissues and help her dry her eyes by lifting the black veil away from the hat she is wearing.  I take off the black glove on my left hand and squeeze her right arm. 

            Courage, I tell her.  You must be strong now.  We don’t want your grandson to see you crying when he gives the eulogy for his father, do we?

            She nods, but the tears form at the edges of her eyes, again, and run down her well-rounded cheeks, making a mess of her face.  I dab at them for her this time while she sniffles.

            You are so brave, she says, not to cry at a time like this.  It must be so hard for you.

            I do not answer her.  I have no tears left to shed for James.  I used them all up years ago.

          

The Falls – Part 2

            To this day, I cannot fully remember my hike down to the bridge.  I recall the path bending back into the forest and the muffled sound of the river as I half ran, half stumbled down the trail.  The trees seemed taller—that I recall—and the sun above shown down through them with hard beams of light, through the tall pines and the shorter birches, alders, cedars—so many trees the names of which I never learned.  My hands were clammy, my throat raw, and I was sweating,  a sweat that chilled me when I passed under the shadows of the leaves and branches.    I was wearing my fleece, and under other conditions, I might have taken it off but I did not think about anything but hurrying as fast as I could.  Soon I was gasping for air, me the workout queen at the gym.  I had to stop.  That was when I discovered I’d left my water bottle behind and the trail book with its maps, back by the spot where James had fallen.

            This is insane, I thought.  I have time. Slow down. I could hear the thrum of my heart in my ears, and feel the arteries in my neck twitching wildly.  It was the adrenaline, I suppose, causing my panic, fogging my brain. 

            Fuck!  I screamed.  Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! 

            It was too late to head back up the trail to retrieve what I’d left behind, but still I needed to get that out.  I hardly ever use profanity—a relic from the many Sundays I sat between my parents in church and the daily bible study classes I attended until I left for University.  How delightful it was for me to abandon the oppression of religious life, and the God in which I had stopped believing when I was thirteen. I had been studying my biology text and realized, in a sudden epiphany, that God, whatever he or it was, was not the God of my parents or my Pastor, or my friends.  Yet old habits never quite leave you.  I never used curse words unless I was alone, and something incredibly frustrating or traumatic had happened, something I had to release, but always in private.  There under the shadow of those trees, the river gurgling not far away, my anger at my own stupidity loosened my lips to allow out those curses. 

            I cursed myself, and James, and God himself for what had befallen me.  A flock of bird in the trees burst up into the sky, frightened or startled, by my outburst, then after swooping above me they settled back down on different trees, different branches, for there were hawks flying high overhead, after all.  James had pointed them out to me the day before, circling, riding the air currents, their wings pushed outward from their bodies, stiff as kites.

            Look at that, he pointed the day before.  A red tailed hawk.  And over there—a peregrine falcon.  I watched them for a while, until James handed me his binoculars.  I lost sight of them, though, and they were gone when I removed the binoculars from my eyes.

            Where are the eagles?  Didn’t you say there were eagles up here? 

            We may see some closer to the river, tomorrow.  They look for large fish when they can find them or dead animals.  Eagles are scavengers, you know.  They’re so big they can scare away just about anything but a wolf or bear.

            So what do the hawks and falcons eat?

            Other birds, he said, a grin on his face. Eagles are too slow to catch most birds in flight, or on the ground, but a falcon, well it’s something to see a falcon chasing a jay or a crow, even a small bird like a wren or sparrow.  Excitement crept into his voice as he discussed the possibility, but I felt a little sick to my stomach.

            I’d rather just watch them circling in the sky, I said.

            Don’t worry, he laughed. You aren’t likely to see them catching anything.  It all happens too fast, and if you aren’t already watching you’ll miss it.  They snatch them right out of the sky with heir talons.  They go after the odd rodent on the ground too.  Chipmunks, mice, that sort of thing.

            Okay, I told him, I get the picture.

            Is this making you queasy?  That superior smile of his was back on his face.

            No, I lied, not at all.  I just don’t need all the gory details if you don’t mind.  I’m not that interested.

            As you wish, he said.  That’s when I hit him on his arm with my fist.  He didn’t have time to prepare for it, and I was glad to see him wince.

            Ow!  What was that for?

            For being a smartass, Farm Boy.

            He laughed so loud then, I heard echoes from the surrounding rocks. 

            Whatever you say—Princess Buttercup. 

            I took another swing at him, but this time he was ready for me, grabbing my arm and dragging me toward him so quick that before I could escape I was encased in his arms, my hands held fast by his and he was kissing me.  Surprised, I let him, before finally pulling my face away, but he kept kissing my neck and nibbling at my earlobes.  A few minutes later, my shorts were down around my ankles and he had me up against a tree, thrusting inside fast from behind and then faster.  I cried out when he came.  He cradled me against the rough bark, then, still slowly pushing into me until his penis softened and slid out.  I was panting and he turned me around and began kissing me again, until I pushed him away.

            Don’t do that again, I said.

            I thought you liked it.  You didn’t complain.  I would have stopped if you’d said anything.

            I know, I said.  It’s just a girl likes to be asked.  Anyone could have seen us out here.

            Not likely, he replied, but point taken.  Next time I ravish my wife in the great outdoors, I’ll be sure to get your written consent, first.  Deal?  He was teasing me again.

            Don’t bet on it, I said as I pulled up my panties and shorts.  I could feel his semen dripping out of me, and I went to my pack and pulled a few tissues out to wipe down my legs.

            Oh, you never know, he replied.  Funny things happen when you take a trip to where the wild things are.

            I tossed my wadded up tissues at him then, but he ducked in time and they flew over his head.   He came up smiling, but not in a mean way.

            Come here, he pleaded.  I want to kiss and make up.  Please.

            So, I did, and we did.  We kissed some more and I nuzzled his neck, even though his stubble scratched my cheeks. 

            You’re a real SOB for making me love you this much, you know.

            I know, he said.  I know.

            But that had been an age ago. Standing by myself alone among all those trees, knowing he was in great pain, lying on some rocks above those damn falls, I wanted more than anything to go back in time, to find some way to avoid what had happened.  Too bad time doesn’t work that way.  I looked at my watch.  It was nearly one in the afternoon.  I needed to get going again.

* * *

            I fell several times on the hike down toward the bridge.  The shadows of the trees kept the sun from drying off the rain from the previous night.  The trail was slick, a thin layer of mud over a hard clay surface, and the slope was very steep.  Puddles of water lingered in places where the trail leveled off.  I must have fallen down at least five times.  I managed to avoid tumbling head first but by the time I made it down to the bridge, my hips, thighs and tailbone were bruised and painful.  Mud covered my pants and hands, and the right side of my face the time my jaw and cheek hit the ground when I fell sideways after my right ankle gave way.  Luckily, I could still walk on it.  

            Despite the rise in temperature during the hottest part of the afternoon, I felt chills in my lower body where my pants simply refused to dry.  The air was humid and thick with the scent of damp pines and yellow cedars.  I was exhausted by the time the path finally returned to run parallel to the river.  Coming out for under the canopy of trees, the bright sun hurt my eyes.  The river was wider here than up by the falls, and the sun glinted off the water’s surface. Myriad spikes of intense white rays burned into my eyes and I looked away to avoid the glare. 

            I slid my pack off my shoulders and let it fall to the ground.  I rummaged around inside, looking for my sunglasses, but when I found them in one of the inner zippered pockets, the frane was broken neatly in half along the bridge that fit across the top of my nose.  One of the lenses was smashed, too, and the other was cracked.  I had no hat, so I had to shield my eyes with my hands.  The bridge over the river was nowhere in sight.  It was ten after four in the afternoon.  I put my pack back on and started walking again, with a slight limp.  I must have sprained my ankle after all.

            I first saw Queen’s Bridge around five o’clock, after rounding a bend in the river.  A narrow slatted pedestrian footbridge, it consisted of one concrete pillar at the river’s midpoint, and two at each end on the land, with two separate bridge sections that each bowed between one pillar to the next.  The look of it reminded me of the Capilano Suspension Bridge, which we had walked across during the first two days of our honeymoon in Vancouver, though not nearly as long or as high. 

            The pillars sunk into the ground near the river’s bank rose about forty feet, with a metal staircase that one climbed to reach the bridge proper. As I came closer, I saw something that made my heart drop.  A tall metal fence, ten feet high or more, ringed with barbed wire, surrounded the stairs on my side of the bridge.   I saw several large diamond-shaped school bus yellow signs attached to the fence.  When I was close enough to see them, I read the following message (printed in both English and French) in red lettering bordered by black: 

WARNING

Bridge Under Repair Due to Hazardous Conditions

Do Not Use Under Any Circumstances

Parks Canada

 

AVERTISSEMENT
Pont en réparation en raison des conditions dangereuses
Ne pas utiliser en toutes circonstances
Parcs Canada

 

            Beneath the warning was the symbol of a suspension bridge with a circle drawn around it and a red line crossing the circle, the universal symbol indicating danger.  A second sign in white, posted below the yellow one by the contractor for repairing the bridge, stated that bridge reconstruction was slated for completion by the June of the following year.

            I confess I panicked.  At some point, I tried to throw my pack over the fence, but was unsuccessful.            Next I tried to climb the fence, but the three strands of barbed wire at the top angled outward, and all I accomplished before falling back down to earth was to rip my fleece and gash my hands on the barbs, leaving puncture wounds on my hands roughly a quarter inch deep.  The worst one had dug a ragged line about an inch long near the base of my right palm, and it bled badly.  Both hands throbbed with pain.  

            However, the shock of what I’d done to myself actually calmed me down.  Climbing the fence was out, and that was just as well.  When I looked up at the bridge, I saw big gaps where the slats had either fallen into the river or been removed by construction workers, the largest of which was a good twenty feet or more long.  If I’d made it over the fence, there was no way I could have crossed that bridge.  I went down to the river and placed my hands in the cold water to numb them, and then I cupped them together so that I could drink some of the water, which was surprisingly clear and sweet.  I sat down there on the gritty wet bank, full of small pebbles, and considered my options.

            I vaguely recalled that if I kept to the trail on this side of the river it would eventually lead back to the place we had started.  However, without the trail map I had no idea of the distance involved, nor how long it might take me to make that hike.  It had taken James and I four days to reach Devil’s Falls, and I believed the distance back was significantly longer.  Worse it would be uphill most of the way.  I had no sleeping bag, no blankets and my hands were bleeding.  I’d be lucky to make it back myself if I chose that option, but even if I did, James would bleed to death long before I found any help.

            I could go back to where James was lying on the rocks and hope that someone would come along in time to save the both of us, but the longer I considered doing that the more I realized it was as bad a choice as continuing along the trail past the bridge.  First, I would have to climb back up the way I had just come, not an easy task, for the slope was by far the steepest I had hiked.  Going down had been bad enough.  Going back up that trail seemed nearly impossible. 

            And what if I did reach James tonight?  What would I have accomplished?  Nothing.  I might save myself (my sleeping bag was back there and our tent, but in all likelihood, that decision would seal James fate.  Besides all that, I couldn’t bear to see the look on James’ face when he realized I had given up.  He said he believed in me, and that I was the only person who could save him.  What would that say about me if I quit now?  How would I live with myself if I quit and he died?

            There was one other option.  Wade the river.  I looked across all that water and tried to judge the distance to the spot where the bridge ended on the other side.  It was hard with the sun in my eyes, even though I shaded them, but it looked to be 200 yards, give or take.  Much wider than where the Falls tumbled down, but the current appeared slower where it passed under the bridge.  I could see a few whitecaps out toward the middle, which indicated large rocks must be located there, and that the current was strong enough to complain about the obstruction they created, but not many of them from what I could see.  The distance wasn’t the problem, it was the depth of the water.  

            I was never a strong swimmer but I knew I could wade across that river so long as the water level did not exceed three to four feet.  My bone structure above my waist was slender, and my upper body strength relatively weak, but all those years of running and jumping during high school and in college had made my leg muscles much stronger than they appeared.  Near the bank where I sat, I could tell that the water was shallow for a good 100 feet or so out, but beyond that point, I was unable to judge.  The river might drop precipitously near the middle where the current was also sure to be faster.  The risk that I might drown was real.  I relied upon the fact that water levels generally dropped in late summer when most of the snow melt was over, but otherwise I had no basis for assuming I could make it safely to the other side.  I might have to swim.  I might be swept downstream.  Any number of things could go wrong.

            In addition, the water was cold, no more than 50 degrees, even though this was August.  The river originated from the runoff of two melting glaciers.  I also didn’t know long it might take for me to cross.  Wading takes longer than swimming, and a half hour or more was very possible, even if the distance was less than my estimate, and possibly longer than that if the current was stronger than I believed.  I had warmed myself sitting out under the sun, and my clothes had dried out for the most part.  Once I entered the river, though, I risked hypothermia the longer it took me to reach the other side.

            How long did I sit there, thinking this all over?  I don’t know.  I recall drinking more water.  My hands were still bleeding, but not as much as before.  I remember looking at my digital watch to check the time and realizing that it had stopped.  It was supposed to be water resistant, but dipping my hands into the river to numb my pain and to drink must have been too much for its circuits to bear.  I looked up at the sun and noticed immediately how much closer it had crept to the horizon line, a mountain range to the west whose name I never learned.  Was it six o’clock already?  Later?  That was when I decided I had to try. 

            I stripped off my fleece and tied it around my neck.  I also loosened my jeans to make it easier to remove them if I found myself in deep water.  Regrettably, I also took off my boots and socks.  If I sank, I would have no chance to swim to shallower water if they encumbered my feet. The hot sun beat down on me but nonetheless I shivered.  Fear came over me in waves.  My heart pounded and my mind raced, full of anxious irrational thoughts, but I walked into the river and the glare of its reflected light.

 

The Falls (Part 1)

 

            We walked until my legs burned protesting the way in which I abused them.  I let my pack fall off my shoulders, and sat down on a boulder surrounded by aspen saplings, covered by lichen of indiscriminate colors.  I rubbed my thighs, and the small of my back until my fingers began to cramp.  He shook a cigarette out of its pack, lighting it with a single match.  The smoke covered his face as he exhaled, creating many temporary beards, while he waited for me to recover.  I could hear the roar of the water, pounding my ears, drowning out the birds singing nearby.  He finished his cigarette.

            Ready, Babe?  It wasn't a question.

            This had been his plan all along, a summer honeymoon in British Columbia, back-packing our way through various parks, hiking miles each day to see all the sights there were to see, eating lentils and energy bars, and the occasional trout he might catch along the way, which he would cook, of course.  I had consented, though I would have preferred a warmer climate: beaches, a hot sun, the drowsiness of piña coladas and mai tais in the afternoon, sex on some private beach, perhaps if the mood was right.  Now, after three days, I was cold and sore.  Last night I had told him no for the first time.  I did not claim a headache as an excuse. 

            This is too much, I said.  Not tonight.  Please.

            He relented without a word, rolled away from me and crawled into his sleeping bag.  I cried a bit after he began to snore, a pitiful thing to do, honestly.  He was a good lover, but the hard ground despite the best efforts of my ergo mat, the wind that came through the tent, the owls hooting and above all the damp cold had stripped me of all desire.  I wanted to leave these mountains and endless trails with their rocks and tree roots strategically placed for me to stumble over , and find a hotel—any hotel—where we could simply fuck and order in champagne and more champagne, but I feared what he might do. 

            I knew he would agree.  He was nothing if not considerate, but afterward, I was certain he would look at me, with that piercing, squinty stare of his, and I would see my failure there, in his eyes.  I could not allow him to diminish me in that way.  This is a test, I told myself, and I do not fail tests, I ace them.  I intended to succeed no matter how much I hated what we were doing, no matter what discomfort I had to endure.  Yes, the stubbornness of youth, I suppose, the kind of stubbornness that comes when you feel you have to prove yourself all the time, the kind when you do not know who you are or who you might become.  The fearful kind, in other words.

            I slipped on my pack—he was generous enough to make me carry the lighter one, forty pounds or so—and held out my hand. 

            Help me up, I said. 

            He reached over and pulled me to my feet, my two hands grasped around his one.  The pack shifted up as he pulled me forward and then thumped down on the base of my spine.  I muttered a profanity.  He smiled mischievously at me. You bastard!  He knew what he had done.  How I hated him that moment.

            Come on, he said.  We are almost there, only another half mile to go.  And the steep part of the hike is over.  It’s all downhill from here.  You can do that, surely?

            Oh yes, I replied with as much sarcasm as I could muster, surely.

            He laughed at my retort, like a little boy taunting his younger brother.  God knows I had seen it often enough with my own brothers.  I understood the meaning of that laugh very well.

* * *

            The rain that fell the night before made the trail slippery and more treacherous, bending this way and that, as we descended through the pines and firs that blocked our view.  The sound of rushing water was much louder now, making it hard to talk.  My blistered toes and heels screamed at me to stop, but that would not have done me any good.  The pain would continue whether I kept moving or not.  He had examined my feet the night before, and done his best to bandage me up with the ointments, gauze pads and medical tape he’d brought along, but I’d played volleyball and basketball in school.  I’d had my share of blisters and these were not going to get better until several weeks after our trip was over.  My main concern was that they not become infected.

            He, of course, was immune to such things.  Why had he picked me over all the girls who loved to hike and camp?  His previous girlfriend had been as much a fanatic about hiking and camping and rock climbing as he.  They’d lived together for three years before he met me and broke it off.  I asked him at the time but he given me only vague answers.  She and I were a bad fit, he said, and he claimed she talked too much— that they’d worn out whatever it was they once had. 

            Yet when I met her before our wedding, I found her shy, with a wistful sort of beauty.  She was far nicer to me than I would have been to her under similar circumstances.  The only advantage I could see between the two if us was that I was taller.  I certainly wasn’t prettier, and I had no reason to suspect I was any better in the bedroom.  She asked if I would mind if she attended our wedding and I agreed without even thinking what it might mean.  She gave us a beautiful oil painting—a desert landscape with shadowy dunes and far off mesas in the distance against a rose- colored sunset— that she’d painted herself, as a present.  She kissed me on my cheek in the receiving line, and smiled.  Good luck with him, she’d told me, and then she was gone before I could reply, and the next person took my hand, and I never saw her after that.  She did not attend the reception.

            Now he was stuck with me, a woman who detested the out-of- doors ever since I’d been a child and my family had gone car camping.  The smoky campfires, the fishing my father insisted upon, the insects that bit me in all the wrong places, the having to find a place to pee where my brothers couldn’t find me, the rains that invariably came at the worst time, and always flooded the old GI surplus tent my mother and I shared—all of it I dreaded.  Yet, after six months of a romance of late evenings of talking and talking with love-making mingled in between, I married the man who had left a far more suitable life companion for me.  He skipped down that slick clay path in his boots and shorts like some nimble mountain goat, in his element, delighted by everything I found a torment. 

            At that moment, as I watched him, I felt like a fool for having said yes when he proposed to me four months earlier as I lay atop him after a mad bout of Saturday morning sex.  My forehead and bangs dripping with sweat I shook my head and sprayed him out of sheer joy.  He’d rolled me over then, and pushed into me for a while longer, and as I luxuriating in the wet sliding of his dolphin chest against my belly and breasts, he’d stopped suddenly and simply said, Marry me.  No fancy dinner, no ring, no kneeling at my feet on one knee, not even a question, just that bare statement: Marry me.  I’d looked at him, with his so serious face, his eyes exposing his vulnerability to me, this man who always appeared in control of himself, and I weakened.

            Yes, I said.  I’ll marry you.

            When?

            When do you want?

            Yesterday, he answered.

* * *

            I was watching my feet, making certain that I didn’t slip, when he grabbed my arm.  Look, he shouted into my ear, there it is.

            There before my eyes appeared the sight we had hiked for two days to see.  Devil’s Falls.  The canopy of trees opened up into wide clear place, and, about 100 feet below me I looked down upon the lowest tier of three separate waterfalls that curved around the bend of a small river roaring down the mountainside.  There are so many words to describe what I witnessed at that moment—the rushing water below my feet, and looking also above me, the two other tiers of water pouring over cliff faces fifty feet or more tall—and yet none of them are sufficient. 

            The river was no more than 100 meters wide where the falls began at their highest point, and the river foamed and churned so violently I found it difficult to distinguish the white bubbles from the dark blue color of the water, obscured as they were by the cool mist that rose up to caress my face.  The temperature dropped at least 10 degrees or more, despite the cloudless August sky, but I didn’t notice the chill.  The view stunned me into silence.

            He took my hand and together we walked to the edge where a low pine fence, about three feet high, rose up as a barrier.  A weathered post stood sentinel near the fence’s center, with a metal plaque atop it, slanted at a 45 degree angle.  I read the information listed there: who first discovered the falls (the first European that is); how it had acquired its name; and other information regarding the geology of the area, and of the rock formations in particular over which the water flowed.  I still had my pack on but he took his off and let it settle gently to the ground.  Then he waved his hand in front of my face to get my attention.

            Get out your camera!  I want some pictures!  You take some of me, first.  Okay?

            I nodded, looked up once again at the view, then I took off my pack.  I felt immediate relief in my shoulder and back muscles, which I did not expect, so inured to the pain of carrying its weight had I become.  I unzipped my pack and loosened the ties string.  My camera was near the middle of everything in its leather case, with a couple of sweaters carefully wrapped around it for added protection.  A Nikon my father had given me for Christmas two years before.  I lifted it out and opened the case.  It was a beautiful camera, but much larger and heavier than today’s digital models.  He posed, sitting at the fence, making silly faces at me as I adjusted the f-stop setting so the film I shot wouldn’t be overexposed. The sun was almost directly overhead, which was a benefit.  Still, I was taking too much time for his liking.

            Hurry up, he shouted.

            I’m almost ready, I replied.  Just give me a second to set the shutter speed.

            What?  I can’t hear you!

            I have to adjust my camera for the light!  I screamed this at him but he lifted his hands from the fence rail against which he was leaning. With his palms up and gave me a shrug, indicating he still couldn’t hear me.  I pointed to the sky and then my camera lens trying to make him understand.  He looked upward, and, as he did so, the fence rail broke and he fell over backwards towards the rushing water below.

            James!  James!  I rushed to the edge, almost losing my balance in the process.  At first, I didn’t see him through the mist, but then as I lowered myself to the ground and he came into view.  The drop to the river below was not completely sheer.  He had landed on a ledge of uneven rocks.  Somehow, he had twisted his body in the air, and he was on his left side, holding his right leg with both hands, a painful grimace on his face.

            James!  Can you hear me?  James!

            He looked up, struggling to see me.  It took him a moment to focus his eyes on me.  His face was very pale and wet, though I couldn’t tell whether that was from the spray rising up from below or his own sweat

            Laurie?

            Yes!  I’m here!  Are you all right?  He didn’t answer me right away, so I continued. 

            What should I do?  That was when I remembered the corded nylon rope attached to his pack, a good fifty feet of it, rope intended for rock climbing.  Why he had brought it with us I had never understood, since I was no rock climber, but now I was happy he had. 

            Wait, I yelled down to him, I’m going to get the rope ! Tie it around you and  I’ll pull you up!  Just a minute.

            No!  His voice was strained and harsh sounding in my ear.  My leg is broken above the knee!

            What? 

            My thighbone broke when I landed on these rock!  It’s bad, Laurie! It’s broken through my skin.  There’s no way you can pull me up unless I could help you!  I’m just dead weight right now and I’m losing blood!  You’re not strong enough!

            Oh my god!  Oh my god!  James! You can’t die on me!  I don’t know what to do!

            Listen, he screamed back, I won’t die on you!  I promise!  But you’re going to have to go get help!  Understand?

            I wiped my eyes clear of the tears that had begun to form and nodded back.  I had no idea how I was going to do what he said, but I couldn’t let him see the panic I felt.

            How?  What do I do?

            Okay, just listen to me!  I’ll tell you what to do but my voice won’t carry much longer over all this noise. 

            I nodded again.  He was right.  The water churning below was a never-ending thunderous roar, as loud as anything I’d ever heard before.  My own throat felt scratchy and rough from having to yell so much.

            First, he said, find the first aid kit in my pack, a water bottle and my spare belt!  I have to use it as a tourniquet to cut the blood flow to my broken leg!  Tie those to the rope and lower them down to me!  Got that?

            Yes!

            I scrambled over to where his pack rested on the ground.  The first aid kit was attached to the outside of the metal frame of his pack, same as the rope and his water bottle, all with carabineers.  That was the easy part.  It took longer to dig inside his pack to find the belt.  Frantic that I was taking too much time, I simply dumped everything on the ground and scattered it about until the belt appeared.  It was made with a nylon/polyester composite material, and after you threaded one end through the metal ring that serve in place of a buckle, you could tighten it down as much as you wanted.   I slipped the rope through the belt’s metal ring and the carabineers that held his water bottle and the first aid kit, and then tied them all together with a simple sailor’s knot Jim had taught me.  Then I made my way back to where the fence had broken.

            Jim, I have everything!  Are you ready?

            He nodded his head, saving his energy.  Already he looked much weaker to me.  I let the rope down and he untied my knot easily enough. He had already used the knife he carried with him in his belly pack to cut a slit up his pant leg, exposing the bone to the opem air.  Even from a distance it looked ghastly, the bone fragment sticking out, and thick blood oozing from around the opening.  A wave of nausea hit me and I wanted to vomit, but I held it in.  He took the belt and looped it around his leg, then with a sudden jerk pulled it as tight as he could.  The scream he gave off then was otherworldly.  I still hear it in my nightmares, the same exact sound. 

His whole body shuddered and for a long extended moment, I thought he would faint. His eyes rolled back and his head slumped to one side, but he gradually recovered.  His fingers fumbled with the latch to the first aid kit, then he took out every gauze pad inside it, ripped off the paper covering and slapped them on his wound.  Over the pads, he wrapped an Ace bandage and then he took out the medical tape and wound it around his upper leg until the roll ran out.  Only then, did he take a drink of water.  The sweat was pouring off his forehead now and he was shivering— that much was clear. 

            Laurie, he called.  You still there?

            Yes!  He was looking right up at me.  How could he not see me.

            Okay!  Take the rope back up.  Take everything out of my pack except my sleeping back and my fleeces.  Take my sleeping back out of its cover, unroll it and open it up before stuffing it back in.  Then go through your pack and take out the two blankets you have and put them in my pack also.  Take it off the frame –

            I’ve done that already!

            Done what?  His voice was very hoarse.

            Removed it from the frame!

            Good, good.  That was smart.  It was hard to hear him. 

            Anything else? 

            No.  When you’re finished doing that, tie my pack to the rope and lower it down.  I started to turn away to carry out his orders, but his voice called me back.

            Wait!  Before all that, find the trail book.  It’s in the large inside zippered pouch. You’re going to need that.

            Why?

            Why what?

            Why do I need that?

            So you don’t get lost when you go to find help.

            James I can’t.  I can’t leave you.

            You have to.

            Someone else is sure to come along.  I—I just can’t.

            Yes you can.  And you have to, you hear me?  We don’t know when the next group will come by.  We can’t take that chance.  By the time they show up it might be too late.   Now do what I say!

            You don’t understand.  I’m not you.  I’ll get lost or I’ll be too slow or something will happen and –and I can’t be the one responsible for killing you because I don’t know what I’m doing!

            Laurie!  Look at me!  His voice jolted me. It was so fierce. 

            You can do this and you will.  If you don’t I will die, do you understand?  You’re the only one who can do this.  Look go and send me down my pack with the stuff I need, then I’ll walk you through what you need to do.  You can do it.  Trust me.

             I shook my head back and forth, sobbing now, but I did what I he wanted.  I found the trail book and took it out of its pocket inside his pack, then put everything inside it he’d asked for: my blankets, his fleeces, and his sleeping page, unrolled and unzipped. I tied the rope around the shoulder straps, using the same knot as before, and then I returned to him.

            I’m sending everything down now!

            Wait!  Not yet.  Do you have the trail book?

            Yes!  I mean I took it out!  You want me to get it, now?

            Yes, get it.  Now!  He waited while I went to find it.  It was a hardly more than a pamphlet—thirty pages of maps and photographs of the various scenic vistas and various other information.

            Okay.  Good, he said when I returned.  Find the page in the Table of Contents that lists all the maps.  Found it?

            Yes, I called down.

            There should be one that that is called Devil’s Falls to West Pine Lodge.  Do you see it?

            Yes.

            Good.   Go to the page with that map.  It should show you the trail path from here to the lodge where they have people who can come and get me out of here.  Look at it carefully.  The trail should follow the river down a bit until it comes to point where there’s an elevated wood bridge that you can cross to the other side.  Do you see it marked on the map?

            Queen’s Bridge?

            Yes, that’s the one.  How far is it from here?

            Five point three kilometers, I told him.  I don’t know how far that is.

            It’s a little over three miles—

            Three miles?  We haven’t done a hike longer than that this entire trip!

            Don’t worry.  The trail is downhill for here to the lodge, and you won’t be taking your full pack.  Just water and a fleece should you get cold.  Now tell me how far it is to the lodge from the bridge? 

            It says six point four kilometers.

            Okay, that’s roughly four miles.  Call it seven altogether.  What time is it?

            I checked by watch.  It’s 11:30, I called down.

            All right.  You’ve got sunlight for another 8 hours or so.  At worst, if you cover a mile an hour, you’ll arrive in plenty of time for them to send someone up here to get me.  Now, tie the rope to the post with the plaque on it and lower my pack down to me.

            I did as he asked.  He grabbed his fleece and put it over his head.  It took it a lot longer than normal.  He took out the blankets next and covered himself with them as best he could.  Next he pulled out the sleeping bag and spread it over my blankets.  Then he wadded up the pack as best he could and stuffed it under his broken leg, crying out again in pain as he did so. Then he laid his head down on the rocks, exhausted.

            James?

            Yes?

            Are you sure?  I still think I sould stay here –

            No!  Get going.  You have plenty of time if you don’t waste it.  You were a jock once, right?  So suck it up.

            I started crying.  James, I’ll go, but I don’t want to.

            I know you don’t, he said, but it’s the only way I’m getting off this mountain.  You understand.

            James—I love you.  Don’t forget that.

            I never will, Laurie, I never will.  Now please, get started.  You have plenty of time.  The sooner you start, the sooner I get help, okay?  And Laurie—

            Yes.  My tears had stopped flowing.

            Thank you.  I’ll be back with you before you know it.  Now go.

            Goodbye, James.  He waved his hand feebly at me in reply.  I turned and started walking down the trail away from the falls. The roar of the water was my only companion.

 

All Right Reserved, including copyright and all other intellectual property protections - T Birch

Topic: The Falls

The Falls, Part II

Ron Fischman | 03/05/2012

I can't imagine how the second part can be any more gripping than the first part. Wow! This is excellent drama. Fortunately for any future partner of mine, I may be outdoors-crazy, but no way am I in this kind of shape!

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Philosophy

It‘s the coarseness of the world I don’t appreciate.  How it passes judgment on me without no never mind for what I seen or where I been or what damn things have been done to me that no one deserved.  You follow what I’m saying?

 

The bus lurched then, sliding you back into the hard plastic-molded seat on which you sat, facing the man across from you.  You had thought he was talking to himself and had paid no attention to him or his words until his question presented itself to you by way of introduction.

 

You looked up and saw a man with a white bearded face and long gray-black hair that he had tied behind him with a purple ribbon so that it formed an unruly mane spreading a wide unruly swath of hair down his back.  This ponytail exposed his ears, small and white with thin purple and red threads, small veins that ran across their surface skin until they vanished, as streams sometimes do when they choose an underground path to escape the open air. 

 

He leaned forward, an earnest, inquisitive expression on a face that jutted toward you with his broad flat nose and receding hairline, sparsely populated with wild hairs that made their own decisions about what form they would take.  Some lay flat, though twisted, upon his reddened scalp; and others stood straight up as if to rebuke the waywardness of their neighbors. 

 

His eyes were open wide and searching for a response, spoken or unspoken, as they gazed upon you, never once glancing away from your own eyes to your body below.  Your book fell from your hands into your lap and then slid onto the hard, cold, wet rubber tracks of the bus’s walkway that lay between the two of you.  You flinched, startled by the fall, anxious and annoyed at the interruption.

 

You reached to pick up the book off the grimy mat; but he beat you to it. The fat of his belly pushed itself over his belt and ballooned beneath his waist, such that his pants bulged and stretched beyond what you believed possible, though it did not hamper the quickness of his movements.  He handed it back to you, his two pudgy fingers holding the upper left corner with a delicacy that belied his size.

 

I don’t mean nothing by it, he said.  It was a philosophical, you understand.  You don’t need to give no answer to me, if you don’t want. 

 

He paused; and so did you, unable to think of a reply.  His expression was one of indecision or confusion as the bus swayed along, swinging you both back and forth in an awkward but reciprocal pattern.  Outside, the night snow fell straight down, its flakes thick and mossy and abundant.  This was the last bus of the evening, and only the two of you remained aboard as passengers.

 

I’m Paul, he announced after you turned away to wipe the cover of your book clean on your coat.  He did not ask for your name in return, nor did you offer it, nor did you say anything to him whatsoever.  He appeared uneasy as he considered the silence that ensued.

 

I ain’t drunk.  He said this sheepishly, a hint of the little boy he once was traversing the distance between him and you.  You could not help yourself. The effect of his words and the sadness reflected in his face, with all its innocence and naivety, had charmed you.

 

I never thought you were.

 

He smiled when your reticence finally crumbled; and his teeth, yellow and brown, his lips pulled tautly upward accentuating his plump, blushing cheeks, enveloped you with their joy.  You smiled in return, a bemused smile but one in which your lips did not deign to open.

 

* * *

 

That morning, over coffee, you and Steffi had not spoken to each other.  You knew that the argument from the night before still bothered her.  You could see it in the way she sat. Hands crossed over her chest, her legs tightly crossed, as if she intended to squeeze out any happy thought that might flitter through her head, she was a rigid and unyielding presence, a cold frost adhering to a colder windowpane. 

 

She refused to look at you, staring out the window that opened onto the small balcony from which you could see, in winter, through the bare branches of oaks and birches, the slowly flowing river, its waters reflecting colors of the grey and unsparing clouds above.  Snow fell steadily down, a moist, small drizzle of tiny particles that melted upon landing on the street or the river but that collected on the grass and the trees, as dust collects on dressers and tables in old houses that have been abandoned.

 

You, the more timid one, did not speak, waiting for her, waiting because you did not know what words to say, fearing you would use the wrong words or your voice would not match the sorrow you felt. You feared Steff would hear only a repeat of your distant, aloof and cruel anger from the night before. That same anger you had expressed so badly last evening when you had refused her.  True, you had been exhausted, and her flirtatious attempts at seduction had not matched well your mood; but you had said no as kindly as you could, and she had persisted, had she not? 

 

No, that is a poor excuse for your behavior.  You had lashed out, and the hard blade of your rejection cut the weakest seam of her stitched-together soul, her omnipresent fear that underlay the rough façade she presented to the world.  Your words had implied that she was not worthy of your love.  Your words, regretted the moment you let them escape your lips.  Your stupid, bitter, unguarded little words that in one instant had toppled the obelisk of an identity she had so carefully constructed.

 

And so it was you drank your coffee in silence, her anger and your shame the dipole that kept you apart even as you both circled round the central core that bound each of you one to the other.  Minutes passed.  After an indefinable period measured by the rising anxiety that moved upward from your belly to your heart and lungs until you could feel the pounding of your pulse in your ears, you spoke, surrendering to your desire to speak, if only to escape that silence.

 

I hear it’s supposed to snow all day.  Six inches—maybe more.

 

Her face turned slowly away from the window toward you.  She took her cup of coffee (black, unlike yours with its overdose of cream) and sipped from it.  She scanned you up and down as a snake might carefully assess a mouse frozen before it, the only evidence of any emotion in her the red veins that appeared as scars on the whites of her eyes.

 

Yes, I know.  It will get colder, too, much colder.  You’d better run your many errands now before it gets any worse.  She pushed her chair away from the table.Your hair is damp.  You took your shower when?

 

Half hour ago.  Maybe 45 minutes.

 

Then the water will be hot again.  I’ll take mine now, if that’s all right with you.  She had emphasized the last phrase, her sarcasm mocking you; but you took it, the full blow.

 

Yes, of course. 

 

She left then for the bathroom each step of her bare feet thumping the wood floor hard.  The sound of a bass drum came to mind.

 

You finished your coffee in one gulp, though it was lukewarm and left a sour aftertaste in your mouth.  The hair dryer was in the bedroom by the small vanity where you kept all your makeup.  Your makeup, not hers, for she never wore any.  The hot air soon scattered the long delicate strands of your hair, and you brushed it vigorously until your scalp hurt from the combination of heat and the hairs that your brush pulled off.

 

* * *

 

Paul carried the conversation as the bus rumbled along, slower than usual because of the snow piling ever higher on the roadway.

 

I was a somebody once, you know.

 

Really?  You replied not to question his veracity but to provide him a polite indication that you were still listening.

 

Oh yes, yes!  Very much so.  It must seem hard to believe, the way I look now, but I once was important.  I had a house in Exeter.  You know Exeter?

 

Certainly.  Exeter was a gated community along the river west of where you lived, where the new money lived. The homes, though different in scale and layout, all looked alike, sitting on their five-, ten- and twenty-acre plots carefully landscaped with new trees, hedges that acted as privacy barriers, long driveways on which luxury cars could be seen.  The homes were larger than any you had seen before, some rivaling the size of the City’s museums or its main library, which took up an entire block.

 

You had once visited a friend from school there who had married the managing partner of a major law firm located in the City’s financial district.  Steff had refused to come with you.  One look at me and they’ll call the cops on us both, she had remarked, only half in jest.

 

People came every weekend to meet with me, Paul continued.  Politicians.  The mayor, you know, and members of the city council and … and I held a fund raiser for the governor once, Governor Evans, you know, a very bright man he was, full of charm, very friendly, had only good words for my two daughters, my wife.

 

Evans had been Governor more than a decade earlier.  He’d resigned his office over some financial scandal involving gifts from various companies that did business with the state and a reputed affair with young female lobbyist.  He avoided prison, but his wife left him about a year after he resigned.  Irreconcilable differences the papers had said.

 

What did you do?

 

Me?  Paul seemed confused for a moment.  Oh.  I was a banker, you know.  Big Bank.  A fixer, really.  They called me in whenever a deal got into trouble with the state or local governments.  I knew stuff.  How to work out any – oh damn, what’s the word – issues, I guess.  I knew how to deal with issues.  Knew the right people.  Got things done.  Fixed.  Big Pauly they called me.

 

What happened to you?  I mean why are you here on this bus looking like – You stopped yourself then, not wishing to offend.

 

Looking like a bum? He said.  Oh, you know—the usual.  Feds.  SEC.  Damn State Attorney General looking to make a name for himself, you know.  Scapegoat I was.  Someone had to be.  So I got picked.  Short straw, you know. My bosses got a slap on the wrist.  Fines for the Bank to pay.  I got ten years in Allentown.  You know Allentown?

 

Federal prison, yes.

 

Yes.  Not a bad one but still prison.  Out after three years but all gone by then.  Divorced, bankruptcy court took the rest.  All old friends refused to see me.  Turd in the punch bowl and all that.  He hesitated a second, then said, No offense I hope. 

 

None taken.

 

Don’t mean the crudity.  Just the way it was. 

 

May I ask what they convicted you of?

 

Does it matter? he said.

 

No.  No, I guess not.

 

You know how sharks is?  How you deal with them when they start circling?  You throw chum in the water to distract them.  Well I was the chum, see?

 

I see, you said.

 

See, I was stupid.  Had nothing on nobody.  Kept no records of meetings, conversation, et cetera, et cetera. He said that last twice for emphasis.  Had nothing to give the Feds or the AG.  Just my word, and that was nothing without the paper.  I was too simple.  I got along, you know.  Big Pauly.  Good old Big Pauly.  Kept everything up here. He tapped his forehead.  That’s the way they wanted it, you know.  No paper trail.  So when the shit came down—you don’t mind I said shit, do you?

 

You shook your head and he continued.

 

When the shit came down, I was the guy everyone blamed.  My faul,t really.

 

So what do you do now?

 

Me?  I ain’t got nothing.  Great unwashed.  Statistic I am. 

 

You have no home.

 

This bus.

 

The bus? 

 

Oh yeah.  See this bus here runs all night.  I beg downtown from eight to five.  Regular hours, like anyone.  Heck, less than I used to work.   Then go to the Salvation Army or one of the shelters to get some food.  Buy a bottle when I can.  No bottle tonight though.  Bad day at the office.  He laughed at his own joke.

 

But what about your wife, your two daughters? 

 

With their mother, you know.  Don’t see them.  Don’t want them to see me either.  Not like things is right now.  You know?

 

I see. His face looked away from you then, down at his feet.  His hair on top of his head looked greasy, what little there was of it.  Looking at his beard, you saw little bits of food and dirt trapped within its maze of bushy curls.  Soup stains, too.  You wondered when he had last bathed.

 

So, girls with mother.  California, last I heard—or maybe it was Arizona?  She remarried, you know.  Good looker still when we split.  Knew she’d find someone else.  Land on her feet.  Not blaming her, you know.  I knew when we married what the deal was.  Beautiful women don’t marry slobs like Big Pauly less they got a good reason.  Miss her sometimes though, you know.  She weren’t mean to me, just practical.  Miss the girls more.  You know?

 

You nodded.  What else could you do?

 

* * *

 

The shower had stopped running, but the door remained closed.  You finished dressing, your face already done.  You were about to walk out the door, about to shout a hopeless goodbye, when you saw your bonsai, the one Steff gave you for your last birthday, sitting alone on a table in the living room under a grow lamp, the only place in your apartment where it could be kept warm in the winter. 

 

You stopped.  Took a step toward the plant you had grown to love, then another and another.  You passed through the Kitchen and the dining area and into the living room.  Before long, you were standing over it looking at its beauty, so unexpected, so—necessary.

 

The bonsai bloomed! you shouted excitedly; but Steff wasn't listening, didn't hear you go on about the bonsai’s single big flower, its perfect white petals and perfect fragrance, very subtle—not overpowering but distinctly memorable.  Not once in the sixteen months since Steff gave you the little Gardenia jasminoides tree had it budded, much less flowered.

 

What? She shouted back.  I can’t hear you!

 

You went to her.  She was standing by the bathroom countertop, stark naked, hands on her hips and looking at her figure as it turned itself within the mirror. The tattoos that covered her back and circled around to her belly glistened from the drops of water that still clung to her skin.

 

The bonsai bloomed, you said again, this time softly but the excitement still in your voice.  Please, you must come see it.  You must.

 

Surprised by the urgency in your voice, she assented and walked with you out of the bathroom, her hair still damp, drops dripping from her hips and legs where she hadn’t scrubbed herself dry with her towel, which now hung from her shoulders.  When you arrived, she stood with you, not saying anything for a full minute.

 

It is beautiful, isn’t it?  Her voice was quiet, almost a murmur.  Look how bright it is against the dark green of the leaves. I can’t believe it.  After so long I’d given up on it.  When did this happen?

 

I don’t know.  Last night, I guess.  I saw it as I was about to leave.

 

You gently touched her arms with your hands and let your fingers grab hold of them. You pulled her around to face you.  She is taller than you by a good six inches and outweighs you by 30 pounds, her arm muscles strong and taut and lean; but she didn’t resist.

 

Dear one, you said.  Dear one, please forgive me.  I was wrong, so very wrong what I said last night.  Please, it was a mistake, a very bad mistake.  I’m so horrible.  I would do anything to have those words back.  Anything.  Whatever you ask, I will do it.  I love you so much, so much, I—

 

She stopped you by placing a finger to your lips.  Gently she took her hand to your cheek and then wrapped it around your neck.  She pulled you to her bare shoulder; and you rested your head there, your face nuzzling her collarbone still damp and cool on your skin.  The rouge on your cheek smeared itself onto her body above her right breast.  Then she took a finger and placed it under your chin.  She lifted your head away from her until you and she were looking into each other’s eyes.  She was smiling.

 

Do you know why I give you beautiful things?  It’s because you are so beautiful.

 

You started to shake your head no, but she interrupted the movement of your head with her strong hand.

 

Don’t argue with me, she said but her voice had no anger in it, only the low raspy tone that first attracted you to her. Her cigarette voice she called it once.  You are precious to me, okay?

Okay.  She took your hand and led you to the bedroom you share. Every so often, she shyly glanced back at you.  She tossed you on the bed and then slowly removed all of your clothes, piece by piece.

 

My errands, you said.

 

What errands?  You don’t have no stinking errands, she responded; and both of you laughed at once, laughed and giggled and other things until the morning was worn away and the afternoon as well.  Meanwhile, snowflakes fell outside your window, as oblivious to you and to her as you were oblivious to them.

 

* * *

 

It is the coarseness of the world, you see.  You know what I mean now.  That all this could happen and yet nothing is changed except my life.  All the others they go on.  They care less, you know.  They got no concern for Big Pauly.  Why should they?  I’m just a grain of sand to them, a speck.  So tiny I don’t matter, so tiny I became invisible to the world, you know. But I don’t appreciate it.  No.

 

I’m sorry Paul, you said.  You spoke sincerely.  His story seemed true, could be true, but does it matter?  Something happened to him, a great fall, and he suffered; and you cannot change that truth.  You looked at him, this large imposing man, a mass of flesh three times your size, and you realized he is right.  The world is coarse, and you and he and everyone else are just tiny pieces of the whole.  The wind blows on everyone, and some suffer harms they do not deserve, and some receive rewards they have not earned; and there is rarely any justice when all is said and done.

 

Paul looked over at your shopping bag at your feet.

 

You buy something for you?  he asks?  Something nice?  Clothes?  Perfume?

 

That?  Oh no, I bought that for my partner.  A present.

 

Your partner?  You not married then, huh? So is this guy, he good to you.  He treat you right? I always treated my wife righ,t you know.  Never hit her, nothing like that.  Anything she ask, I get her, you know? So, a good guy, your “partner” is?

 

Well, it’s not a man.  That was the first time since he started talking to you that you felt uncomfortable. 

 

Not a man?  You mean—whadda you mean?

 

My partner is a woman.  We’ve been together for five years now.  He did not respond to this so you kept talking.  We had a silly fight last night, and well, we made up and all; but I thought—well I thought I would buy her a present.  Because I love her, you add.

 

So you a Lesbo, is that it?

 

I don’t like that word Paul.  But yes, I am a Lesbian, I guess.

 

She guesses she’s a Lesbo.  He was getting louder now, more strident.  How the fuck do you not know what you is, huh?  You sleep with a woman and you guess you is a Lesbo?  What the fuck?

 

Paul, please don’t talk like that.  It bothers me.  And to answer you, I tried lots of relationships with men.  I was even engaged once, and –

 

Oh, so you were fucking engaged. 

 

Yes, and well, then I met my partner; and it was very different from all the men I had dated.  Look, I’m sorry if it bothers you to talk about it, okay?  Why don’t we just drop the subject?

 

Bother me?  Bother me?  He repeated himself.  No it don’t fucking bother me, you fucking Lesbo.  It don’t bother me I been talking to you this whole time never knowing you was a fucking pervert, a deviant.  No it don’t FUCKING BOTHER ME?  WHY?  DO I BOTHER YOU?  HUH, LESBO?

 

Paul was shouting now and you were scared, more scared than you can remember.  All at once, the bus started sliding sideways, the back end fishtailing.  Both you and Paul fell off your seats.  When you looked up, the bus driver was walking down the aisle toward the two of you.  He’d stopped the bus.

 

Pauly, I warned you.  I warned you, man.  The bus driver is a large black man, maybe 50 or 60 years old; but there is no fat on his body, just muscles.  He’s smaller than Paul, but he must work out with weights, because he looks like a body builder.

 

 But she’s a fucking Lesbo, John!  I wouldn’t have talked to her if I knew that.

 

I don’t care what she is, you got me?  You know the rules, Pauly.  I let you ride this bus all night, let you sleep on the benches, hell I even buy you a sandwich now and then.  And I don’t have to do none of that, do I?

 

No, but…  Paul was upset, but you could see he was as afraid of John as you were of him just a moment ago.

 

There ain't no but about it, Pauly.  Now get off my bus, right here, right now.

 

But John, it’s snowing outside.  It’s cold.  I don’t have no proper coat.  I got no place to go.  You want I should die? 

 

There’s the Sisters of Mercy shelter six blocks down McCravey Street, due north.  I think you can make it there before you freeze to death.  Now get out before I have to kick your ass out.  NOW!

 

Paul rose to his feet with as much dignity as he could and walked down to the front of the bus with John following him the whole time.  John swung open the door and Paul shambled down the steps until he was standing on the street about a foot away from the sidewalk.

 

I can still ride tomorrow night, can’t I John?  Please.  I didn’t mean nothing.  You know I didn’t, right?  I promise it won’t happen again.

 

We’ll see.  You got two strikes on you Pauly.  You understand me. Two strikes, man.  I ain’t losing my job over you, you got that?

 

Paul said something you could not hear.  Perhaps it was an apology.  In any event, the bus door closed and you watched as Paul stumbled in the thick snow, snow that was still falling down, swirling and dancing in the wind, as snowflakes are fond of doing.

 

John made his way back to you.  You trembled as he approached, the adrenalin still pounding through your body with each rapid beat of your heart.

 

Are you all right, Ma’am?

 

Yes, you said.  Yes, I’m all right.  Thank you.  I was a little scared for a moment back …

 

I know.  I’m sorry.  I woulda stopped sooner but you have to be careful with all this snow.  Big old bus don’t stop as easy as you like when it’s like this out there.  He gestures to the window.

 

Is he— is he dangerous?

 

Pauly?  No—least not most of the time.  He’s just a little off is all.  Most of the time he just sits there or he sleeps. Sometimes he strikes up a conversation.  Likes to talk about himself, he does. I let him ride if he has the fare price.  Only time I ever had trouble with him before was when some young gay kid got on the bus.  Started yelling and carrying on just like he did with you tonight.  Never got beyond the yelling stage, though.  I guess he don’t take kindly to your people for some reason.  But that don’t justify what he did.  I’m real sorry.

 

No, it’s okay.  I should thank you for what you did.  Thank you.

 

That’s all right.  Listen, how close are you from your home?  I’ll take you right there, even if it is off my route.  Least I can do.

 

I live at 325 Park Avenue.  The apartment building.  Do you know it?

 

Oh sure.  Have you there in five.

 

Can I—can I come sit up front with you?

 John laughed. ey, you see anyone in the seats up there?  Sure, you can sit wherever you like.

 

You followed him to the front of the bus and watched as he turned the bus slowly back onto the street. There was hardly any other traffic on the road due to the conditions, and only a few people trudging down the sidewalks.

 

John?

 

Yes Ma’am.

 

Was his story true, what he said about himself?

 

John looked over at you, his eyes dark and piercing.  I don’t know?  What he tell you?

 

You explained the story as best you remembered it: the bank, the conviction, the wife and two children, the divorce.  The more you told Paul’s tale, the more indeterminate it sounded to you.  A mere skeleton of a story wrapped in vague references that permitted you to fill in the gaps and inconsistencies with your own imagination.  You now wondered if he didn’t make it all up.  When you finished, John shook his head and whistled to himself, one extended note of disbelief.

 

Well that’s a new one to me.  I heard a lot of Pauly’s stories, but I never heard about him being any hotshot banker before.

 

But could it be true?

 

Who knows?  A lot of these folks ain’t right in the head, you know.  I’m just saying I never heard that one before is all.

 

So what do you think of him?  Did he just tell me a bunch of lies?

 

Ma’am, all I know is he’s a man down on his luck, no job, no home, who drinks too much.  Maybe a little crazy, too; but then if you had to lead his life, maybe you’d be the same way.

 

* * *

 

It’s after 10 P.M. when you turn the key in the door lock and step into your apartment.  All the lights are off except the one over the sink in the kitchen.  That light casts a yellowish hue that quickly dims into pale shadows in the other rooms to which it has access.  You walk over to the bonsai and look again at the flower, now larger than before as the blossom opens up. The petals emit a faint greenish tint from the light reflecting off the gardenia’s leaves.

 

In the bedroom, Steff is already asleep.  The blinds are open, casting ribbons of black and white across her body.  You undress quickly and climb into bed with her, feeling the need to push your body up against hers, to become absorbed into her body and she into yours.  She is wearing boxer shorts and no top, her usual sleeping attire. 

 

You drape your arm around her shoulder and kiss the nape of her neck.  You kiss her again and again for as long as you can.  She sighs but does not awaken.

 

 

All rights reserved, including all copyright or other intellectual property protection by T. Birch

Topic: Philosophy

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