We crossed the river flowing through the yellow grain fields. The afternoon sun was shining on the brick chimneys of the farmhouses, the tall dark pines, and the high slopes and mountain peaks surrounding the wide, flat valley.
“Maybe we’ll catch Frank on a good day.” Joyce looked at me, and then said—though she’d already warned me—“He’s down and out, just so you know. A loveable loser. And a drinker.”
I know the type I could’ve told her, but said, “Don’t worry. I’m happy we’re doing this.”
Something about Joyce made me want to be around her. A kind of energy and glowing brightness. I was nervous when picking her up in the parking lot near her realty business in Kalispell, but the idea that she was “showing me a property” made it easier. I hadn’t been with many women in recent years.
“Good,” she said, smiling. “Maybe he’ll sell you his place. The house is worthless but you’ll like the location. I’ve been teasing the man about selling me the whole spread. I tell him I’ll lay out a golf course and subdivide for housing. He ignores me. Or tells me I’m going to inherit it anyway when he kicks the bucket.”
Past a bayside resort in the tourist village of Bigfork, Montana, the narrow black highway wound now along the rocky shoreline of Flathead Lake, and the base of the Swan Range. Once in a while the lake showed through the shore pines and we could see for miles and miles over the flat, dark, waveless water, the blue blue sky above full of bright white clouds. Long rows of planted trees grew on the mountain slopes above the lake, with scattered cottage-like houses here and there. “Orchards?” I asked Joyce.
It was a new country to me; I’d never been that close to mountains before. I’d rented a cabin along the lake for a holiday, after taking a leave from my job, and Joyce had acted as the rental agent. We ended up having a drink downtown, and talked lots, for a long time, in a way I never do. After setting me up in the cabin she suggested a drive along the lake, just to see the country, and show me the property where her husband—who she said she’d separated from years ago—still lived, and might come up for sale some day. She knew I was looking at options in my life, and maybe making a change.
We passed closed-up plywood fruit stands, August leaves already falling on them. Then Joyce asked, “So, Nathan, how come you never got married again after your wife died?”
“Well … I was pretty busy raising Maggie, and keeping bread on the table. I was focused on that.” She already knew I had a daughter, who I’d mostly brought up on my own.
“You must’ve had some dates, and girfriends?” She was looking right at me.
“Sure, some—but not many.”
“Yeah. Well, hey, potential buyers like you are my bread and butter.” She smiled again, her eyes sparkling. “Do any fishing yet? There’re some pretty big lakers out there.” She nodded toward the lake. “You better sink your hook into one. Wet your line in new waters.”
“That might be a plan.” I smiled too.
“You got a list of things you wanna to do in your new life, Nathan?” she asked, more seriously. Maggie, my daughter, had asked me that too after I told her I was leaving work for a while.
“No,” I said, “but fishing would be one.”
“There’s a monster in that lake you better watch for. A lot of people have seen it.” She was kidding me again, her blonde hair almost glowing in the sun shining through the windshield, and there was the faint smell of her perfume.
We came around the last of the lake and could see back up the full length of it, maybe forty miles. A town called Polson was along the south end. Joyce gave me directions as we passed through.
Then the country flattened out into a wide valley again, with harvested croplands, and the Mission Mountains, blue and high nearby. I couldn’t help staring at them, jagged, with some white on top. I thought about living in one of the small old farmhouses near the fields and mountains, a ticking clock on the wall, a quiet kitchen with a big window, a hunting dog, and a hay field to cut. I liked the open country, with the mountains not far away. I wondered about a woman like Joyce in a house like that with me; but really, it was more a kind of daydream. Anything is possible, is a favourite saying of my daughter’s, but I never took it to heart; she was always the optimist in the family.
We came to Ronan, a small town. Joyce directed me to Main Street. Flat-roofed stores, bars, and an old movie theatre lined the sunlit street. She pointed out a bar-windowed liquor store. I parked in front.
“We need to take Franklin an offering. Old Indian custom,” she said, smiling as usual as we got out. I followed her, her snug jeans a perfect fit. Near the liquor store was Dick’s Pheasant Lounge, with a pheasant on the sign over-hanging the sidewalk. “Frank’s office,” she said, nodding toward the bar.
In the liquor store Joyce picked out a bottle of Jose Quervo and a bag of limes. “It’s all he drinks these days. I can’t imagine any man his age consuming this poison,” she said.
“I got it,” I told her, as she readied to pay.
“No, no, it’s mine,” she replied.
“Not this time,” I insisted, and stepped in front of her.
She looked at me. “Aren’t you the strong silent type.” Her face was partly covered by her wavy hair, her skin smooth and tanned, the sunlight coming in the store window on her face and hair, hair so blonde it was almost white. Through the arm opening of her sleeveless blouse I could see the tight, white, strap of her bra against her skin. It took my breath away.
Joyce guided me off the highway down a long dirt road. The country was mostly cattle pastures now and the blue mountains were getting closer. Pretty soon we were looking over grasslands and hay fields in front of the mountains. Pines covered the foothills. The road curved, an then there was a ranch yard with some old buildings and corrals. “This is it,” she said.
An iron gate was swung open and tilted like it hadn’t been used in a long time. The house was small and old, with a few ancient trees in a dry, grassy yard. I saw a man standing in the sun around back, hoeing in a garden. He kept hoeing and didn’t look up.
“That’s Frank,” Joyce said. “This is where I lived, once upon a time.”
Past the house was a weathered barn and some ragged corrals, and a pile of rotting hay bales. A pair of appaloosa horses stood in the pasture with their backs to the sun, their heads lowered, grazing. They flicked their tails every few seconds. I parked near an old Ford pickup. We could’ve been back home where I’m from, in Saskatchewan. Some of the small operators left in that country won’t let you leave once you start talking to them. Others are pretty hard-assed, at least on the surface of it, if they don’t know you. I figured Joyce’s husband could be one or the other.
“Frank’ll shoot me if I bring this,” Joyce said. She set her cell phone on the counsel and picked up the alcohol. “I guess I’m an enabler. Just as well me as a bootlegger. Okay, I’m ready if you are.”
As we neared the house the man who’d been hoeing came around. Joyce walked up to him, said something I couldn’t hear, put one arm around his slim body and gave him a hug out in the bright sun. She turned and said, “Nathan … this is Frank. Frank … Nathan.”
I shook his rough-skinned hand. “Hi, glad to meet you.”
“Sure thing,” he said, the sweet-sour smell of alcohol on his breath. He was older than I’d expected, and thin to the bone, with a distended stomach above his silver belt buckle. He was wearing stained Wranglers, worn cowboy boots, and a dirty peaked cap. His face was leathery with a few days of grey growth, his eyes watery and clear, friendly in their way, but with a drinker’s distraction. “Come ‘round and sit,” he said.
A warm grassy breeze was blowing. Frank walked stiffly with his fingers in his front pockets. An unpainted plank deck ran off the back door, with a few old kitchen chairs and a rickety-looking wooden table set on it. Nearby in the grass was a rusty homemade barrel barbecue. An empty tequila bottle lay on the deck. “Set your ass down,” he invited. He hitched up the crotch of his jeans and sat.
“Thanks,” I said.
Joyce stood looking at us. “I see you haven’t changed your drink, Frank. If you stay on that pretty soon you’ll be doing meth, or God knows what.”
“Don’t laugh,” he said, his arms crossed, not looking at her but at me. “I know a guy who’ll sell you about anything.” He rubbed his rough chin and half-smiled.
“I’ll mix us some proper drinks,” Joyce said. “Be right back, boys.” She opened the screen door and went in the house.
“Gone with the wind,” Frank said. “As per usual.” He stretched out his lanky legs. “She can’t stay in one place more’n a minute or two.” He asked where I was from, and I told him. “Never made it there before. What you chasing after down here?”
“Just a holiday,” I answered, glancing at him. “I rented a place on the lake from Joyce.”
He nodded. “Yeah, she can sell you about anything, all right.” He looked away but kept talking. “There’s a girl who turned herself into something. It’s in her make up. Natural kind of energy in her blood. I used to be married to her back in the day. She slept on the sofa the whole last month she was here.” He leaned forward, smiling now. “I guess that was a pretty good sign, eh?” He was drunk, and for a second I was not comfortable being there, though he was nothing new to me. “You married?” he asked.
“Widower,” I said.
“H-mm,” he nodded.
“How many cattle you run?” I asked, after he didn’t say anything more.
“Forty or so.”
“Are those your appaloosas?”
“Those horses belong to Bilson Bitney. I rent him that piece of pasture. City people all want a horse. Otherwise there ain’t been a horse on this property since my old man lived here—he kept a few,” he said, and coughed, wheezy and phlegmy.
Joyce came out carrying a glass pitcher of green liquid with ice cubes, and glasses on a tray, the glasses with a bright ring of salt on them. The screen door slammed. The ice cubes clinked on the glass pitcher that was already sweating. “Plain margaritas,” she said, enthusiastically. “My favorite if I have to drink this stuff.”
Frank pushed his hat up and looked happy that Joyce was there serving us drinks in the afternoon.
She set the pitcher and glasses on the table. The top of her blouse fell open and her breasts showed. She poured the drinks, a few ice cubes plopping into each salt-rimmed glass. Her hair toppled forward, and she swept it back behind her ear. “Help yourself, Nathan,” she said. She took a glass and sat, crossing her long legs. Her suede-strapped sandal hung from her toes. Her feet were nicely tanned and the blood vessels atop her insteps bulged. “Bottoms up. The ice’ll melt soon,” she said.
I picked up one of the cool glasses and took a short sip of the lime and tequila drink with a taste of salt. The air was warm, and the drink cold, sweet, and bitter.
“Nathan operates road equipment up in Canada. But he’s contemplating making a change.” Joyce glanced at Frank, as if to make a point. “Some people do that.”
“Good for you, Nathan,” he said, not taking the bait. “I used to work half the year. But gave it up. Could never pass by a saloon, winter or summer. I don’t need lots of cash to live out here. And nothing much to take care of. Right, Joyce?” he said, looking at her.
“You have that mangy garden. And those cows. It’s all you need, Frank.”
“All I need,” he said, nodding.
I glanced at the standing corn in the garden. It looked burnt and shrivelled, the cobs hardly formed.
“But your corn’s struggling, Frank,” Joyce said, looking at the garden too, then at me with a cagey smile.
“Haven’t managed a proper crop in years. I think the coyotes piss on it and kill it,” he said, and laughed. “Or maybe the damn Indian spirits steal it at night.”
The breeze ruffled the crinkled, drooping corn leaves. Some empty chemical pails and other junk lay in the dry grass. I took another drink. The ice was melting, weakening it, which was what I wanted.
“You a gardener, Nathan?” Frank asked.
“We had a garden in my mom’s yard when my daughter was growing up,” I told him. “I kept it up after mom left the place to live with a man, and my daughter and I moved into her house. But I let it go after my daughter moved out.”
“Not a green thumb among us,” Joyce said. “Cheers.” She lifted her drink. We clinked glasses.
Frank took a deep drink and then sighed. “You’re a God-send, Joyce. I like ice in a drink on occasion.” He took another sip. “My dad wouldn’t take ice. Only straight whiskey. Kept a mason jar of bourbon under the seat of his truck when I was a kid. Told me it was tea. I snuck a drink once. It was piss-warm but I liked the taste.” He took a swallow of his half-done drink. Then after another and it was gone, except for a green haze clinging to the ice. “That hit the spot. Keep’m coming Joyce and the whole country’ll smell a party.” He leaned forward and carefully re-filled his glass. “You should’ve picked up a box of chicken, girl. I got nothing to feed our guest here,” he said then, nodding at me.
“I’m all right,” I said.
“I can run to town and get some,” Joyce responded, “if y’all get hungry.”
“When the time comes.” Frank took another drink, finishing most of it in one swallow. Then he stood up, unsteady for a moment. “Time for a urinary experience.” He stepped to the screen door. “Be right with you.” He went in, letting the screen close with his hand so that it didn’t slam.
“What do you think of Frank’s place?” Joyce asked.
“Reminds me of home, except for the mountains.”
“Has potential, doesn’t it. The house has to go; it could be cleared in a day.” She nodded toward the door. “I studied real estate in that living room. Frank paid for the training, and licence. I didn’t have a job then.”
“How did you meet?”
“In Scottie’s Saloon. Got married that winter in Vegas. We drove down in his pickup with cow shit splattered all over the back of it.” She laughed. “A common kind of romance in this country at one time.”
“My mother got re-married in Las Vegas,” I said.
“See,” she said, and lifted her glass.
“In those days I pictured myself as a kind of back-to-the-land hippy. But we were never very productive. We partied too much, for years.” She shook her head, slowly, thinking. “It was fun, for a while. I spent a long time parked in neutral. Eventually it got to feel more like panic.” Then she said, “Wanna know what did it, finally? What made me leave?”
“A cricket. Yeah, a little ole black cricket. I’m scared to death of those damn bugs. In the middle of the night one August a cricket started chirping in the house. The thing woke me up. God, I was petrified. It was pitch dark and I couldn’t get up the nerve to turn on the light and stomp it. So I laid there with that damn thing sounding like it was in bed with me. Then I started bawling. Cried all night.” She laughed. “I’m serious. It was pitiful. Near morning it finally shut up. I got out of bed and stole Frank’s truck. Drove to Kalispell and took a room at the Blue and White. Never spent another night here. Oh … that was long ago.”
“Then what did you do?”
“Well, after that cricket cleared me out I found an office job with a realty outfit.” She took a sip of her drink before continuing. “There comes a time in everyone’s young life when you got to figure out that you’re responsible for yourself. Now I own that business.”
“You did good,” I said.
“Thanks. I guess I stumbled onto a hidden talent.” She topped-up my glass, and then her own. The pitcher was near empty. “That didn’t last long,” she said. The wind was dying and the shadows lengthening across Frank’s yard. Sparrows chittered in the cooling air. Joyce got up. “I’ll make another one, and check on our host. Don’t run away, Nathan.” She put the pitcher and glasses on the tray and went in.
After a while I heard voices inside, and then Frank came out. The top buttons of his shirt were undone and he’d forgotten to buckle his belt. “Nathan,” he said, “how doin’ out here on your lonesome?”
I nodded. “Surviving.”
“All we can hope for.” He dropped heavily into his chair, and sat there breathing raspy and quick, like he’d been winded. Then the man threw up his arms as if doing a cheer and held them there; then lowered his arms and locked his hands behind his head, and stretched out his legs. The heels of his boots were worn, and a dust line ran across the leather where the cuff of his jeans had been. His body jumped in small spasms every few seconds. I’d been with drinkers like him before, trying to act sober. He still had something about him that wasn’t old and worn out long before his time, but not much. My father always looked, and seemed, all the way gone; it was something you sensed; saw in his eyes that he was dying.
I crossed my arms and stuck out my legs too. Just then a truck came into view along the trail into the yard. The old truck was moving very slowly, and came to a stop near the open gate.
“That’s William,” Frank said. “He won’t come in if there’s people around.”
I could make out a dark-skinned dark-haired man inside. The truck gears grinded, and the driver slowly turned the truck around and left.
“After one bad winter that man lived off stillborn calves in the spring. Wild meat was hard to get. No feed for his cows and it was so cold some were aborting. William ate the dead calves.” Frank looked at me. “Beat the coyotes to ‘em. Sweet, eh? Sometimes you get a taste for something.” He wheezily laughed, his eyes having gone more watery to near tears. “We all got our hankerings.” Then quieter, staring at his boots, he said, “I couldn’t have kids. Something wrong with the reproductive system. We found that out after Joyce thought she wanted to be motherly.” He tipped his hat back again, still working hard to act sober. “Artificial insemination was out of the question, far as I was concerned.”
I didn’t have to respond; Joyce appeared with more drinks. “You still with us, Frank?” she said, sounding intentionally upbeat.
“Sure. Though I may not make the winter.”
“Who was in the truck?” she asked.
“Drug dealer,” he said, blandly.
She looked at me while pouring. “Oh, right.”
“Did you hear they found that woman off 93 near Dickey Lake, Joyce?” Frank said. “Body was back in the bush a ways.”
“It was in the news,” she answered quietly.
He looked at me. “This lady wasn’t five feet tall, Nathan. Like she never grew up all the way. Looked like a little kid. Had a tough life. Suffered through one of those eating disorders. Skinny as a rail. I bumped into her lots at the Second Chance. She even took to begging for a few bucks now and then. Practically lived in that saloon, last couple years. Never felt sorry for herself though. I always had a soft spot for her. She disappeared last winter. Now they found her, looks like.”
Joyce took a small drink. She looked a little flushed.
“Say, you gett’n hungry yet?” Frank asked.
“I’m still okay,” I said.
“There’s the odd chance I got some frozen steaks in the ice box. We used to do’m up on the barbecue. Hey, Joyce?”
“I don’t think we can stay, Frank,” she said.
“Don’t want you to go hungry.”
“We’ll be okay, Frank. Thanks,” she told him.
“Suit yourself. If you get the urge on the way back Nathan there’s a Chinese place outside Polson. Joyce and me ate there back in the good old days. My old man used to buy me Chinese in Seattle and Spokane when I was a kid; this place is just as good.” He took a deep breath, staring at his boots again, the drink in his hands resting on his lap. Then he got up, carefully, shakily set down the glass, and reached for the screen door. Without looking at us or saying anything more, stiff-legged and bent, he went in.
I glanced at Joyce.
She sat there quietly; and then said, “When you’re young, you’re embarrassed by some people you can’t get away from. Maybe there’s reasons for how they are, but you’re blind to it, and selfish. When you get older you understand the inevitability of some people’s lives. It doesn’t matter … does it … how they are? If you love them anyway.” She leaned forward. “But you don’t have to let them take you down with the ship.”
I looked at her. “No, you don’t,” I said.
She glanced into her glass, tilting it a little, moving the frothy green fluid. “He never got out of that … middle life. That time after being young, you know? When you’re not young anymore. If you don’t make the transfer you get stuck in place.”
I thought I knew what she meant. I also knew it wasn’t easy, or even possible for some people to get beyond it. People without options. For others, it takes mining a strength and courage they never knew they had. I thought of my mother, who had nothing then, walking away from my father when I was a boy.
Joyce looked at me. “You know he’s an alcoholic. He can’t quit, even if he wanted to—without help; which he does not want.”
I nodded sympathetically. I hadn’t asked her why she’d not divorced Frank, but thought I understood that too.
“Stubborn and stuck. Now he doesn’t care—and he’s made up his mind.” She whispered now, smiling a little, “Some of us squeak through by the skin of our teeth.”
My breathing wasn’t in-sync after she said that, and I took a deep breath to even it out. Frank’s story of the woman found dead, and then what Joyce was saying. Escaping by the skin of your teeth. Or maybe never. It threw me for a short loop; probably because it was all too familiar. “Uh-huh,” I said, involuntarily, trying to smile. We were in the shadows now as the sun fell. I set down my glass and got up. “I’m going to stretch my legs, Joyce.”
I went around the corner of the house and walked across the yard to the grey corrals along the pasture. I put one foot on the lower plank. The breeze had fallen to nothing. The appaloosas were moving out, grazing. A cloudbank had formed over the plains in front of the mountains and a blue fan of rain slanted out of them. A ragged string of dry lightning flashed. Crickets had started chirping, chitt, chitt, chitt.
After a while Joyce came up from behind me. “What’re you looking at?”
“Oh—the mountains,” I said, not having heard her approach. “You’re right. It’s beautiful here.”
She stood beside me, hands on her hips, looking. “You noticed. Settles your mind, doesn’t it?”
“You’re a quiet guy, Nathan. You from another planet? An alien?” She smiled.
“Sure. But I come in peace.”
She laughed quietly. Then she breathed in the air and crossed her arms. “Wanna know what the secret of life is, Mr. May? Well, mine, anyway.”
“Sure,” I answered.
“Finding something to do; then keeping on doing it. You don’t have to love it, you just have to do it the very best you can, with good intentions. Put a little heart into it. Then you don’t get lazy about life. Like Frank.”
“That’s a good secret.”
“You know it.” She paused a moment, then said. “You really can get by without love, if you stay busy. But you’d probably be crazy to turn it down if it landed in your lap.”
“Probably,” I said, blushing a little; but I don’t think she could tell in the lowering light. “Frank reminds me of someone,” I said, probably to divert from the subject.
“Oh, any number of people I guess.” Which was true; but he reminded me of my father. How he was his last years; what Frank was well on his way to. I hadn’t thought of him, really, in a long time, probably since my mother died.
The dark blue curtain of rain slanted out of the clouds in front of the mountains but the dry grasslands were still lit-up in the early evening. The air smelled of alfalfa and the far-away rain, and there was the thitt-thitt of irrigation heads shooting out water in a hay field. “That rain might make it this far,” I said.
“Could,” Joyce said. “I loved the smell of a rain coming when I lived here. And lots of snow in winter. Everything all white. I liked it when it snowed in spring too, then melted right away. I was lonely; but I loved certain things.” She was quiet a while. Then without looking at me, she asked, “Do you ever miss your wife, Nathan? After all this time? Do you ever think of her?”
Her questions caught me off guard, but I answered quickly: “It’s been a long time.”
“Do you remember what she looked like? Do you remember her face? The faces of people I used to know disappear on me over time. I forget them. I remember their aura, but the details of their face disappear.” She looked at me. “Do you remember what she looked like?”
“Sure … I remember.” Like she’s standing right in front of us, I could’ve said.
“Was she pretty?”
“In her way. She was young. I remember her as very young.”
“Fifteen years she’s been gone, you said?”
“Almost,” I nodded. Then right at that moment a lump rose in my throat. I choked a little on the bitter taste of tequila coming up, swallowed and turned away, and swallowed again.
The sun was almost gone now and it was getting cooler. The appaloosas kept grazing further out, and the bright threads of snow on the mountaintops, and the sun fiery along the fringe; and then it was gone, behind the peaks. I liked the cooler air. It reminded me of fall.
A screen door slammed back at the house. We turned to look. Frank was standing on the front step. He was shirtless now, looking scarecrow-skinny with his hands in his back pockets, his belt buckle still hanging undone.
“Time to go,” Joyce said. “I think he forgot about us.” She stepped closer to me and put her hand just above my hip and squeezed the thick muscle there. “We don’t want to get caught here after dark. The bats and coyotes could drink our blood. We’d be enslaved forever. Come on.” She laughed, let go, and turned for the house.
“Why don’t you start that truck,” she said as we got near it. “I’ll thank our host for the lovely visit.”
I sat in the truck and waited. Joyce stood with Frank near the front steps, hands on her hips, looking at him.
When she got in with me she brushed back her long hair again with her hands. “Okay. Let’s go,” she said.
Frank lit up in the headlights in front of the fading sunset, still standing there shirtless, watching us leave.
The sky was darkening. Stars would be out soon. I opened the window to let in the cool air as we made our way to the highway.
Joyce seemed into her own thoughts. Then she looked at me. “I’m sorry Nathan. God. I don’t know why I took you there.”
I glanced at her. “No, it’s okay,” I said, meaning it.
She reached over and touched my thigh. “It was dumb. Selfish. I’m sorry.”
I kept my eyes on the road now, not knowing what more to say.
“Thank you, anyway. I feel comfortable around you. I like you.”
“I like you too,” I told her.
She sat back and seemed more relaxed. “That’s good.”
After a while, she said, “I guess I needed company to go there one last time.” She paused a moment. “He’ll never come out of it, you know. Some people surprise you—Frank won’t. One day he’ll disappear like that girlfriend of his. Or they’ll find him down an embankment, on the way home from some bar.”
I felt another quick jolt when she said that. Life wasn’t as solid and unending as we think it is when we’re young. People we love could disappear; be gone in a moment. I’d learned that a long time ago. But that knowledge fades in good times, until you are bluntly reminded. I also knew it may not be that way with Frank. It could be a long while, and lingering; much longer than Joyce might think.
“What’s that saying?” she said. “The law of the heart is your conscience? If he does come around he can sell real estate with me. He wouldn’t be the first survivor to take up the trade. The business is full of ‘em.” She glanced at me. “Hey. You wouldn’t want to end up like that would you?”
“I’m not interested in selling real estate,” I said, smiling.
“Be nice.” She laughed. “You’re shy guy, Nathan. Very self-controlled. But I feel like I’m getting to know you.”
“Yeah?” I glanced at her.
She laughed. “Roll up the damn window, it’s cold in here.”
We travelled back along the lake not saying much now. It was dark on the steep slopes above the shore. A long silver streak lay across the giant lake in the last of the light.
Main Street Kalispell I parked beside Joyce’s Tahoe, and walked around and opened the door to let her out. She stood near me in the parking lot. “Thank you,” she said. “You know I was only taking advantage of your good-heartedness. Women like me probably take advantage of you all the time,” she teased. “How do you feel? Are you okay?” she asked then, sincerely, standing close, looking at me intently.
“I’m fine, Joyce. Thank you. Thanks for talking me into this. It was nice to spend time with you.”
“That’s sweet of you to say, considering. Let’s explore the other side of the lake next time. I don’t have any husbands over there,” she said, smiling now. “If you want to?”
“You go on back to your cabin in the woods and answer that question yourself.” She kissed her fingertip and placed it softly on my lips. I could feel her warm breath on my face. “You know, I may be your lucky star,” she said, pointing at me as she turned to leave.
She walked to her SUV, looked back once, then got in and drove away.
Driving to my cabin in the woods I thought about Joyce, and how she looked, and thought about that as much as I could. Because I wanted to, and because it fended off thoughts of the woman Frank had told about, and my own dead wife, Maggie’s mother, gone so many years ago.
In the cabin kitchen I turned on the light. I still felt a little wound up from being with Joyce and knew I’d have trouble sleeping. I sliced some old bread and made French toast and ate it slathered thickly with butter, and cherry jam I’d bought at a tourist shop in Bigfork, and drank a glass of milk with it.
After eating I went out in the dark and stood on the grass. The mountains were darker than the sky and stars glittered above them. I could make out the sound of lapping water along the dock on the lakeshore. A train passing somewhere through the valley rumbled lowly in the distance.
I went in, the light haze of the alcohol lifted all the way now so that I could call Maggie before bed. She answered after a couple of rings.
“Hi, it’s Dad.”
“Hi. I’ve been waiting up hoping you’d call,” she answered.
“I guess it’s getting late.”
“That’s okay. Just studying in my pj’s.”
“How was your day, kiddo? Did you work?” She did occasional evening shifts at a Safeway in Calgary, where she lived now, and was able to manage that with a full load of first year university classes. I’m very proud of her.
“Yeah I did. My day was fine. I work tomorrow too, then I’m off for three days,” she said, sounding upbeat. “When are you coming home, Dad?”
“Day after tomorrow.”
“Should I meet you at the cemetery?” she asked, quieter, meaning the cemetery where her mother was buried, her marker way out in the grassy prairie, not far from the old farmhouse her family lived in when she was a child.
“That might be best,” I said. I get nervous—or a feeling like being nervous—in the days before Maggie and I make our annual visit her mom’s grave, the same day every year, that would have been her birthday.
“… Okay,” she said, a little hesitantly. My heart went out to her. She’s always tried so hard to keep her mom in her memory, after she was killed when Maggie was only a toddler. It’s a big day for her. “I can be there by two o’clock. Does that work?” she asked, more upbeat again.
“I’ll be there. I’ll leave early and make sure I’m on time.”
“Okay Dad. Oh guess what?” she said, sounding very young.
“I splurged on a new outfit with that money you gave me. It’s really nice. I can’t wait to wear it.”
“Good for you.”
She didn’t say anything for a second. “Dad?” she said then.
“I’ll bring a bouquet, like usual.”
“Good. I was hoping you would.”
“Okay then—two o’clock.”
“Can you find your way? There’s no cell service out there you know.”
“Of course I can. I’ll be fine,” Maggie insisted.
“And drive careful … on that gravel road.”
Ignoring my concern, she said, “Oh hey, I have to get back right after. I can’t stop at home.” She meant my mother’s old house, where I still live, and where we’d lived together until she left for university.
“You’re a busy girl.”
“Yep. I forgot to ask, what’s it like there?”
“It’s quiet where I’m staying along the lake. I like it.”
“You having fun?”
“I’m enjoying the new country.”
“Good. I’m glad you’re doing something for yourself. It’s about time. I’m happy for you,” she said.
I nodded, but didn’t say anything.
“Call me if anything changes. Okay?”
“I will,” I promised. “Sleep well, Angel.”
“I love you Daddy,” she said, before hanging up.
I went for more fresh air before bed. I thought about what Joyce had said about Frank being caught in a stalled-out life. I believed I knew what that was, but had never wanted to see; see how I’d become over the years. That time after a long part of your life has gone into the past and a new one hasn’t started yet, and maybe never would if you didn’t let it. You had to live the best way you could with what you had, and count your blessings, in your way; but you could get stuck too, without seeing it, for a very long time. If you were lucky, and you worked hard, tried every day at something, things from the past fade away, or at least are not on your mind as often anymore.
The crow-black sky pulsed with stars over the lake that was dark too but with some glittering on it from the shore lights. The day with Joyce seemed a long time ago, now, but I made myself think of her, her hair, her skin, her bright, sparkling eyes, her optimism and humour, her curiosity and confidence, and the sense of kindness and caring deep in her voice.