Fiction - Autumn 2011

Paradise

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A fledgling romance in the Washington mountains, and another, doomed love affair that cannot be forgotten

Frost on airplane window (Photo by Wikimedia user Downtowngal)

By David Guterson

August 25, 2011


 

They went in late September, starting out on I-5, which she handled by staying in the right lane with ample braking distance, keeping her hands at 9 and 3 on the wheel, and disdaining speeders and tailgaters. No problem there—he found her driving style charming enough. She was a silver beauty in a dark blue Honda Element—one of those boxy, hip-to-be-square cars—with nearly inaudible public-radio chatter on fade, and all of that was fine too. She wore a jean jacket with mother-of-pearl buttons, an ironed pastel skirt, and suede-laced sandals. Her eyes were green, her smile was warm, and she didn’t talk just to fill space. She seemed self-sufficient but not cold about it. In her politics, she was not so liberal as to be obnoxious, but not so conservative as to suggest one-upmanship. She didn’t pretend to be an organic farmer, kitchen goddess, world traveler, yoga master, artist, or humanitarian; neither was she reactionary with regard to those personas. She was green but not gloomy and, while not indifferent to approaching 60, not obsessed by it either. She had a good sense of humor—quiet and subtle. She didn’t expect to live forever through exercise and a healthy diet. She understood that he was still in the aftermath—damaged goods—without making his condition central to the way she treated him. In short, he wasn’t disenchanted. But he still expected to be.

How had this happened—this trip to Paradise? Via Match.com, that was the simple answer. The idea that he would need Match.com—he wouldn’t have predicted it, hadn’t seen that he would go there. But Match.com was what people did now, and actually it made sense. It saved single people trouble and grief, decreased their disappointments and misunderstandings. Digitized, you put yourself out there, minus the pretense that it was other than what it was. You cut to the chase without preliminaries. And the people you met were just like you—they’d also resorted to Match.com—so you didn’t have to feel embarrassed, really, unless you wanted to do that together and mutually laugh at yourselves.

They’d skipped that step—the self-loathing self-punctures—opting instead for straightforwardness in a wine bar, where he told her immediately about his wife, and she told him about her former husband, long remarried. He described his children—a boy out of college and a girl still in, both thousands of miles from him—and she described her energetic twin sons, who’d found good marriage partners, stayed in Seattle, and started a successful business together selling “hand-forged” doughnuts. He knew about her work from her Match.com profile, but asked about it anyway, as a matter of course: sociology at Seattle University and research, right now, on social networks and epidemiology. His turn arrived: commercial litigation. Specializing in securities fraud. What exactly was securities fraud? And so they got through their first date.

Their second—which he initiated, though he’d found the first arduous and painful—was for an early dinner and Russian chamber music. She had accepted, gratis, two tickets from a colleague; they may as well go, why not, they agreed, since neither knew the first thing about Russian chamber music but both were willing to find out about it. At dinner in a warehouse full of people half their age, he discovered that his date was allergic to peanuts, a light eater, and a morning lap swimmer. The World Health Organization, in conjunction with FIND—Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics—had sent her during her sabbatical, last year, to study sleeping sickness in Uganda. No, she hadn’t traveled in Africa, but she had gone to Geneva for a WHO convention in the middle of her Uganda research, and to Dublin on her way home to see a friend with ALS. Dublin was a subject he could talk about a little. He’d played semipro basketball in Cork for three seasons. A minor sport there—give them hurling instead. What’s hurling? she wondered genially. Golf without rules, he replied.

Did he play golf, then? Never, he assured her. Golf courses, they agreed, were a waste of water, although, like cemeteries, they relieved the eye of urban density. What, then? For exercise? He rode a bicycle to work five days a week. He confessed to dressing like a bike nerd to do it—the polyester jersey, the Lycra shorts, the waterproof helmet cover, the fingerless gloves. The fluorescent, high-visibility colors. The weekend racer’s flourishes and trim. Was all of that a mistake? He couldn’t tell. Self-deprecation could easily backfire. Calling yourself a geek: surely counterproductive. He shut up about bicycling and engaged her on politics: what did she think about tearing down the viaduct and replacing it with a tunnel through downtown Seattle? They ate, split the bill, and walked toward the chamber music: twilight in the city, just a little car breeze; a waif with ANYTHING HELPS scrawled on cardboard. Maybe, he thought, my chinos are wrong, but she hadn’t really dressed up either—black with a little sparkle in her sweater. Still, her lustrous head of bobbed silver hair would cover her when semiformal was required, as it might be required for Russian chamber music.

As it turned out, he didn’t love or hate the performance, had no strong feelings one way or the other about the string quartet and attractive young pianist playing Rachmaninov and Shostakovich, but he did notice something in Benaroya Hall that spurred him toward a third date. Sitting beside this new and unfamiliar woman in box seats over a corner of the proscenium, he was keenly aware of her well-coifed hair, her straight carriage, and her hands in her lap, and he found himself excited. And scared.


Their third date was for dinner at an Italian restaurant that afforded plenty of privacy. There they broached sex in plain, honest terms. He told her he didn’t know what would happen in bed. He said he hadn’t slept with anyone but his wife for 26 years—then add on the six months since she’d died of a heart attack while in the middle of leaving him for someone new.

Mount Rainier was cloud-bound, cloaked, helmeted, gone. The new woman in his life got off I-5 at Fife and did battle with Puyallup—its traffic lights, turn lanes, and arterial aggressiveness—by dint of the same methodical approach that had seen her through the freeway’s fury. She didn’t deplore the South Hill Mall, or either of the Walmart Supercenters they passed, or the growth of Graham, or clear-cuts. Nor did she make a big deal about the apples being picked by ladder climbers wearing vest bags, or the scarlet vine maple leaves right now at their best, or roadside fruit stands. They passed through a stretch of low-lying fog, small farms, lakes, and alder thickets. Here the light was even more dour, and the pastures clammy, hoofed down to mud. Was that worth talking about? Was it corny and off-putting to be enamored of the fall landscape, even in a muted and prosaic way? Should he talk about these matters, fall and its merits, fall and its sadness, fall and the perils in too much description of it, or should he go on saying nothing, play it safe? Silence didn’t seem exactly right, but he felt hamstrung and chastised by his own mental chatter. Maybe it was better not to talk.

It rained in earnest. There were no cute towns, just trailers and blight, minimarts and badly named burger joints. They entered Mount Rainier National Park and, on the road to Paradise, walked to Narada Falls beneath umbrellas. Now she, too, had little to say. They were both silent, watching the waterfall in the rain. Driving again, she set her teeth against her lower lip. The rain-pelted slopes of the mountain came into view, and the last of the blue September gentians, wind-whipped. The lodge was as advertised—grand and handcrafted, rustic and gothic, simple but complicated, well-appointed but crude. It seemed to him a massive mistake, everything too big, too lodge-like in earnest. He kept this to himself, though. He felt scattered, apprehensive. They checked in on two credit cards and went to their room—a standard with a queen bed, no television, no phone—at the end of the hall on the fourth floor of the annex, with a view of the Tatoosh Range, weather permitting. But right now, the weather didn’t permit.

I might as well be open, he said, taking the room’s one chair, a wooden desk chair. I’m nervous.

Me, too.

I’m losing my cool. Could we pull the shades? It’s me I don’t want to see, not you. I don’t want to look at myself right now. No, I’m not going to whine the whole time, I promise, but—

Sure.

It’s time, he said. Thank you.

He stooped to unzip the bag he’d brought, reached in, and told her, I thought I might—you know—need this. He showed her a bottle of pills.

Okay.

Excuse me. Just for a minute.

He went into the bathroom with the bottle and a toothbrush, and took a pill with water. Privacy allowed him to agitate his doubts and shore himself up simultaneously. Who if not her? But this was a mistake. His wife was gone but this was too sudden. Quietly, he brushed his teeth, then came back to find her in the chair with her handbag settled and open in her lap. While he’d been in the bathroom, she’d drawn the shades; there was no more view of mountain meadows. Yet still it wasn’t particularly dark. Everything was plain and gray in this light. Let’s just get on the bed, he said, and lay there for a while. Not that I want to dictate to you. But that’s what I need to do. Is that pathetic?

She closed her bag, set it on the floor, and unbuckled her sandals with her silver hair hanging. It unfurled, he thought, like a Möbius strip. What do you think? she asked.

New territory.

Maybe I should tell you something. Because love and death—I’ve been there, too.

Sure, he said. Break the ice.

Barefoot, she got on the bed. She sat up next to him with her back against the headboard and her hands pressed palm to palm against her skirt. While she talked, he lay with his forearms across his eyes, as if by negating the room he might see better, but actually this was a habit of his, something he did to live inside himself—lie down, cover his face—for hours at a time, at home, in the evenings, instead of watching TV or reading.

I grew up in farm country, she said, but that doesn’t really describe it. Do you know where Odessa is? In eastern Washington? I grew up 13 miles from Odessa in what they call the Channeled Scablands. We grew wheat. It was really pretty simple. But let me back up a little. Do you know the Spokane Floods? I’m terrible on eras, but a long time ago there were the Spokane Floods. They took the country down to black rock—basalt. Except for these islands of good soil: the hills. So what got farmed were the fingers, the islands of soil—the benches and the feet of benches. Flying in from Minneapolis you see it. The dark channels are the rock, and the yellow is soil because our soil was loess, and loess looks yellow. Wind brings it. It’s like dust but it grows wheat. Dry-land wheat, no irrigating. My mother spent a lot of time battling with loess, and my father had farmer’s lung, probably because of it. He coughed all the time. At night especially. We had 7,000 acres and a pile of combine parts. My dad was always worrying about weather. Everything was always touch-and-go, marginal, at the mercy—one more bad season and we’d have to leave, but where? That was a topic of ongoing conversation. It’s the bleakest of the bleak kind of farming, what you grow when nothing else will grow. Odessa—Odessa is Russian Mennonite. Actually German. Or rather German Russian. Germans who migrated to Russia but then came here. Isolationists. They want to do their own thing. They go in for the hardscrabble places like Odessa. We weren’t Mennonite or Russian or German. We actually lived closer to a place called Lamona, but Lamona had nothing, so we went to Odessa. Lamona was a siding, a railroad siding. So I went to school in Odessa on a yellow bus. And the grocery store, but not the doctor. You needed a doctor, you drove to Spokane. When you were really going big, you went to Spokane. An hour and a half. We drove up to Davenport and went that way. Do you remember Expo? World’s Fair in Spokane? I worked at Expo in ’74. I was 22. But I’m ahead of myself. What year was it when I was 16? It was … ’68. But I had no idea what was going on in the world. We were so out there, the only connection was Time magazine. At the little library in town, which was open two days a week and about the size of this room. Plus television, except we pulled in only one channel at our house, KREM, which was CBS. People say ’68 was seminal, but Odessa? I remember hearing about a boy from Wilson Creek, not far from where I grew up, who got killed in Vietnam … Sixty-eight, that was Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy. I mean, I heard about it … Okay—you get my point.

With his forearms still across his eyes, he said, The tulies.

Anyway, there was this boy. He was just this boy I thought was handsome, nobody special, just one of the boys I went to school with, but he was older. Most of the boys there, they were farm boys, like this boy. Billy, Tommy, names like that. This boy was named Clifton Rider, and he was 18, and he lived closer to Harrington. Two years older. The bus I took to school would start picking up kids toward Harrington and then it would come our way. So I would always see this Clifton Rider, and he would always be sitting way at the back with his brothers, he had two brothers. And their friends. Boys. We didn’t—I mean my sister and I—we didn’t go back there, we sat toward the front with a group of girls. Our whole school was 80, 90 kids. Everybody knew everybody. There weren’t really the cliques. The kids on the sports teams were the kids in the school play, otherwise there’s no school play.

What about Clifton?

Clifton too. He was okay. Not the star of anything, just … average, except for his looks. At least I thought so. Not a tall guy, not a boy like a lot of high school boys, with a lot of body language—pretty quiet guy. Very down-to-earth. They grew wheat like we did, the Riders, but they had potatoes and hay, too, or at least they did in ’68. Sometimes we went for groceries to Harrington because my parents knew the store owners there—my dad was in their Lions for some reason, the Harrington Lions instead of Odessa, probably because of something petty—that area was petty. So we would see the Rider kids around there in Harrington. Clifton, the oldest. My sister and I never talked to them, but we knew who they were, and we knew their reputation, which is that they were Pentecostals whereas just about everyone else around there was Lutheran. I shouldn’t say that. There were also Congregationalists. And Seventh-day Adventists. But my family was Lutheran, pretty seriously Lutheran. We went to church every Sunday. Our pastor didn’t push hard. The Pentecostals—people thought they were extremists. Just rumors, but the things you’d think of—speaking in tongues, laying on of hands. So the Riders, they were associated with that. One thing they did do, they had the dress code in their family. The Riders looked neat. Short haircuts, and they always had their shirts buttoned up and tucked in. All three of the boys were sort of bullish in appearance. Like their dad. Thick neck, wide face, heavy brow, even when they were just kids. Which can be, actually, more expressive than you think. I mean, when Clifton was up or down, you knew it.

She stopped. The lodge had recently been girded to earthquake standards, but the windows still creaked when the wind blew. He heard that, and when she moved a little, he heard the bedsprings. The noise and the movement of the bed were considerable, so he peeped out from under his forearm. She was trying to get more support from the pillow at her back by pumping it like an accordion. Take mine, he said. I’m not using it.

No. This is fine. I’ll just fluff it up a little.

She got settled again and went back to her story. Where was I? she asked. Probably on a tangent. All I’m really trying to say is that Clifton went out on a limb and talked to me. When we were getting off the bus at school. He was behind me in the aisle, and he said—I don’t know. I could lie and say he said something great but the truth is, I can’t remember. But he said something. Then we got off the bus and walked together for, seriously, a fraction of a second. After that he said hi all the time. On the bus or elsewhere. Just hi. I said hi back, trying not to flush. I would turn red and sweat, though. This went on for a couple of weeks, during which I thought about Clifton obsessively. I was in love with Clifton Rider. It was really hard for me on the bus. Same thing at school. I couldn’t concentrate. I told my sister I had a crush on Clifton, and she told everybody, and then a rumor came back that Clifton had a crush on me too.

One day when he said hi to me at school, he caught me in a braver-than-usual mood, and I was able to say, ‘Hey, Clifton, hold up for a second. I want to ask you something. You’ve been hearing rumors. I’ve been hearing them, too. What have you heard? Rumors are always flying around here.’ He beat around the bush on that. He didn’t want to answer straight on, directly. But the upside was, we’d gotten past hi, so now when we passed each other in the halls we would both roll our eyes to indict the lack of privacy at Odessa High School. We were locked in by it. We had something to share. The ‘this place is just too small’ conversation kids have in small towns. You could go on from there. You could take it from there. We were at the friend stage now, but the whole time, I was in love. I wanted Clifton to … just … take me in his arms and kiss me or something. So far we’re not even sitting together on the bus. Remember what that was like? I couldn’t decide if he was nervous or if he just didn’t like me the way I liked him. Two years older was a different category. Maybe he liked me, maybe he didn’t. Remember ‘Both Sides, Now?’ Sixty-eight? I just had to hear that song and bang. Even though it had nothing to do with me or Clifton. But that’s music for you.

Ditto.

‘Both Sides, Now?’

It’s possible to go there if your mood’s right.

Her assenting murmur was not entirely firm and made him think that covering his face while he spoke had gotten rude. He uncovered it and sat up. Did with his pillow what she’d done with hers. I like his name, he said. Clifton Rider.

Clifton, she answered. I thought it was great. And his last name, too. Super cowboy!

You had a cowboy thing.

No. But I had a Clifton thing, so that smoothed the way for a cowboy thing—singular. Clifton was sort of cowboy in a
neatnik way.

He rode a horse?

Actually, a dirt bike. Or a farm bike. They had a thing in Odessa called Deutschesfest, and it included a motorcycle run. People screamed out of town and came back a couple hours later covered with dust. I don’t know what it was all about. That’s just what we did then. I was down there with my friends, probably just hanging around doing nothing, laughing at the polka music outside the beer garden, and Clifton rolls up on his bike and says, ‘Hey! Hop on!’ I didn’t think. I just saddled up, figuring my friends would sort of chalk it up to the Deutschesfest spirit. A farm bike, that was how you got around, kids took these farm bikes into the scablands. All the epic teenager stories were about bikes in the scablands. People went for parties. There were places we knew about. You could get down over the base of a bench and be out of the wind where a lot of old fencing had been dumped and build a bonfire, and drink whatever. We used to pool our money and send someone to this place in Spokane, a little store that didn’t card. But me and Clifton. We didn’t do it, but we came close. Oh boy, Clifton! By a fence-post fire. Then we went back because we had to. People would miss us. They’d all be talking. It was a huge concern. What if people knew? So we went back to Deutschesfest and he let me off. I found my friends and said, ‘Yeah, great ride, we went out toward Duck Lake’ or something. I found my parents in the food tent and did, you know, sausage and strudel, but it was one of those ‘Aren’t you hungry, somethin’ wrong?’ kind of dinners because I was on Cloud Nine. Blissed out. Couldn’t eat. Because of Clifton.

How do I explain this? I lost my virginity. But it was really tough for me and Clifton to get together because my parents were not going to go for this—Clifton Rider. Not that they paid attention. They thought exclusively about wheat, is what I thought then. They weren’t human to me. Wheat on the brain. The farming game. But I told my sister, and she was good about things. We were close—still close. She lives in Denver. You know what? You always have to have an accomplice. When she fed the dogs at night she muzzled them for me. That way after my parents went to bed I could climb out the window and not set off barking. And get with Clifton. He’d be waiting by the shed with condoms in his pocket. He brought blankets and he’d be standing there with the blankets, and you know, we’d go into the shed. We’d go into a corner of the shed and wrap up in blankets. For hours. Sometimes until it was almost morning. Then Clifton would creep off into this little ravine where he’d stashed his bike out of earshot. I pulled the dog muzzles before I climbed back in. You have to wonder how many kids are doing this. Sneaking around. A lot, but only a few of them are having a great time, if they’re honest, and those are the ones who are madly in love.

Maybe you’ve been there. Have you been there, Odessa? It’s like Spokane. You look at the weather report for Spokane, it’s at least low 20s just about every night after Thanksgiving. Inside the shed, maybe it’s 32. With the blankets and us, better than that. We whispered all the time, because we were scared. Whispered conversation. The natural subject when someone’s 18 is what are you going to do with your life? Clifton didn’t know. If he didn’t get drafted he was hoping to work on farm equipment. Or for a seed company. But he didn’t want to farm and he didn’t want to leave the county. He didn’t want to leave because of me, he said. If he left he couldn’t see me, and that would kill him. Me! Year before, I’m no one to anyone, then I turn 16, go through physical changes, and now Clifton Rider can’t live without me. I’m aware of that. But still, it’s genuine. Puppy love is real to the puppies—completely real. Hey—I went to Spokane with my parents and my sister every year to go Christmas shopping, and that year, I bought Clifton an album by The Doors. It was snowing and there were cars off the road near the air force base—Fairchild Air Force Base. I say this because it was a bad snow year. It piled up. Hard to say how much. Three feet, maybe? Never got warm enough to melt, either. Just kept adding, usually at night. A lot of mornings we had fresh snow on the ground. When was this pattern going to stop? That kind of weather, notable weather. They had the roads plowed and sanded but they couldn’t keep up. People liked talking about the wipeouts and near misses. Small town, no real news. The lights went on at our house—my mom liked Christmas lights. Snow’s down time for wheat farmers. My dad played with lights.

I’ve been guilty of that. When the kids were young. To make them happy.

And did Christmas lights make them happy?

I feel bad for my kids. That’s the—sorry.

We’re here, she answered. The door’s shut. We’re here and that’s what we came for.

They took in their room. It was spartan at best. The money went to the lobby, not the rooms, and in accordance with the mountain there was a dearth of appointments. But she was right, they were here, whatever the appointments, and anyway he didn’t care about appointments. So it was all right—maybe—to mention his kids. Clifton, he said. Clifton Rider.

The weather I described was bad for me and Clifton. Icy roads didn’t exactly lend themselves to shed trysts. Too hard for Clifton to get around on his bike. Footsie under the table in the school lunchroom became it. My parents got wind—small town, of course—and my dad down-talked the Riders incessantly. He said he didn’t know anything about them except that they were Holy Rollers and hunted without permission, out of season. Tongue-speakers. Foot-washers. Who’d they sell grain to? Who’d they buy fuel from? Where’d they get fertilizer? They didn’t use the people my dad used, so they must be terrible human beings. My mom didn’t cotton to the Riders either. I was too young to have a boyfriend. I needed to be thinking about other things. Well: I put the emphasis on friend whenever Clifton came up. But my sister knew everything.

So. I told Clifton I had a Christmas present wrapped up for him and ready to go. But snow kept falling all through December. Clifton wrote me love notes. Clifton with his dirty, greasy farm bike—Clifton wrote love notes. How he thought about me constantly. Sweet little amorous folded-up notes. I’m not saying Clifton was a poet, but his notes were good. You wouldn’t think that was the case. Thick-necked farm boy. I really liked this about him—underneath, the note writer. Just me, no one else ever saw the real Clifton. Actually, I didn’t get to see him much either because of the snow that December. Our notes were about, how could we get together? Then—winter vacation, or Christmas vacation, so now I’m not even seeing him at school. It’s literally physically painful not to see someone when you’re that much in love. Finally, not Christmas Eve but the day before Christmas Eve, Clifton tells his parents he’s going duck hunting. He borrows his dad’s fake ducks—decoys, they’re called—and stuffs them in sacks and ties them to his farm bike. Gets out the gun, goes through all the motions. Gets out the waders, the duck call, the Elmer Fudd cap—all the duck-hunting-accouterment clichés. All so he can rev up at 3 A.M. without his parents wondering why.

Guy got to me in a snowstorm. Came in through the back field so the dogs wouldn’t get wind of him. I woke up because snowballs were hitting my window. There’s Clifton in the Elmer Fudd cap. I opened up and told him to be quiet—you know, a finger to my mouth, shush. It’s snowing but the moon is out. Clifton is brushing snow off his shoulders. Stuff is falling hard, which is good, because it’ll cover his tracks—maybe he hadn’t thought of that. Maybe he wasn’t as smart as I thought he was. Or maybe he was. I don’t know. But anyway, I sent him to the shed. I pointed at the shed, he went, I got dressed, two sweaters, best shoes I had in the room, but then, with the snow, it didn’t seem like I could get out the window. Too slippery. Too dangerous. I tried, but it couldn’t be done. I was going to have to tiptoe down the stairs, which meant getting past my parents’ bedroom without waking them up. Impossible. My mom was a light sleeper, lifelong insomniac. I didn’t know what to do. What could I do? I looked for Clifton, but Clifton was in the shed. I was stuck, snowbound, as they say, on the one hand, parentbound on the other. No getting out. No answer. I kept looking out the window. I thought that after a while, Clifton would come see what was up and I could explain it to him, my predicament. But he didn’t. So I just went on wondering what to do. Finally, I went down the hall and said, ‘I can’t sleep. There’s a lot of new snow. I’m gonna go outside for a few minutes.’ That seemed innocent enough. And it got me past them with The Doors album and out the door and then I ran to the shed. But no Clifton. No Clifton in the shed. I’d say it was probably about five degrees outside and 15 in the shed. Clifton’d left me a note and while I don’t have it memorized word for word it was basically to the effect of, What happened? I waited. I love you. I miss you. I need you. Let’s get married so we can stop sneaking around like this. And he’d left me a little Christmas present, nicely wrapped, which I put in my coat pocket and didn’t open right away, because I had other things to think about, other things to be nervous about. I went out and I could see his boot prints going off across the back field. Filling in fast. It’s still dark, but now I’m thinking, when my dad gets up he’s going to see those prints and know. So I walk out a ways until that’s taken care of, his prints are blurred by mine, and a few times, when I’m far enough from the house, I call for Clifton. Real loud, but lost in the snow. Then I have to turn back. I’m frozen to the bone. I can phone him later and explain what happened. Give me the benefit of the doubt and let me be a little romantic here—it was very poetic. Sixteen, out there in the snow, in love, pining, and calling Clifton’s name one more time before turning back. I can still hear my voice not traveling.

Go ahead. I don’t begrudge you the right to … just go ahead.

That’s because of your own life, she said. That’s what I saw the first time we met. At that wine bar.

She touched his temple. Stroked his hair—what was left of his hair. You know what? she said. I look right through you and see the boy inside. Boy Clifton’s age. I mean, I can look right through you now and see you.

I do that. But come on—what happened?

Terrible, she said. I hate small towns. Anyway, the phone. You know, the dreaded phone call. My dad took it. ‘Bad news,’ he told me. ‘Sit down for this. That “friend” of yours, Clifton Rider? They found him this morning. On Mohler Road. Skid-out accident, broke his leg, froze. Poor kid. I hope you’re gonna be okay. You okay? That’s a hard thing to get over, when a teen dies. I—’

Clifton died?

Died.

And he wanted to marry you.

He said that, anyway. His gift was a ring. A silver band from Spokane.

She paused on that, and so did he, because he didn’t know what to say in the face of it. After all, she’d more than implied that she believed in love as something greater than adolescent hormones. Although, again—maybe that was wrong. Maybe her point was: kids are so dumb. That at 16, she would have married Clifton Rider, which would have meant passing her life in Odessa, or near Odessa, coughing up loess, watching the price of wheat, eating Deutschesfest strudel, and making sure her kids never snuck around behind her back having premarital sex. Hmmm, he said. So which Doors album did you get him?

Waiting for the Sun.

She went silent again, and then reached for her toes, he had the feeling so as to hide her face from him.

Hey, he said.

But still she spoke with her head down: the big song was ‘Hello, I Love You’ but I don’t know. Not so great. The one I listened to after Clifton died was ‘Not to Touch the Earth.’ Jesus, that song! He loved that song. Clifton liked Jim Morrison, the Dionysian poet.

She still wouldn’t look at him. Why was that? Once more that silver hair of hers spiraled down like a Möbius strip. Okay, he said. Let me get my phone. Let me see if I can get it on my phone. He got up, found his phone, dropped, dragged, and brought up The Doors, ‘Not to Touch the Earth.’ Are you ready? he asked. I’ve got it here.

No.

You don’t want to hear it?

Okay. Go.

Somewhat banal—Not to touch the earth / Not to see the sun / Nothing left to do, but / Run, run, run—and when not banal, cryptic in the ecstatic Morrison vein. But did it matter? Because now the new woman in his life was crying. She was crying hard enough to make him see approximately where he stood in her life. A trip to Paradise with a guy met on Match.com. It had come to that. They were doing their best. He touched her fingers and she took his hand. Who was this person he was about to make love with? Or was that the right term—making love?


David Guterson is the author of ten books, including the novels Ed King, East of the Mountains, and Snow Falling on Cedars, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1995. He has also written a collection of poetry, Songs for a Summons, and a story collection, Problems with People.


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