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The fifth of July, they went down to the river, RL and June, sat on the rocks with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red and talked about Taylor. The fifth of July was Taylor's birthday and they did this every year. He would have been fifty. RL had been his boyhood friend and June was married to him. He'd been dead eleven years.
This side channel used to be one of Taylor's favorite fishing spots, but five or six years before, a beer distributor from Sacramento had built a twenty-room log home right on the bank and then drove a Cat D6 into the river and piled up a wing dam, to keep his house from falling into the drink. This pushed all the current out of the side channel and into the main river. A few last big fish lurked down deep in the channel but mainly it was suckers. Still, it was a pretty spot to sit on a long evening, the shade of the tall cottonwoods slowly deepening into green water. A pretty spot if you turned away from the log palazzo. They sat on the rocks and watched the water trickle by, the cool splash of river water over gravel.
I wish . . . said June.
You wish for what? RL asked her.
I wish I had a cigarette, she said, and laughed. June smoked exactly one day a year, and this was the day. RL got one out, gave it to her, lit it. He was smoking a cigar himself. He had bought the pack specially for her. The two of them stared at the smoke as it curled through the still air. RL could just barely hear the trucks passing on the interstate, a mile away. The sound always made him lonely, the thought of all that highway, all that American night out there.
These anniversaries, said June. They keep sneaking up on me. He's been gone, now, longer than I ever knew him.
That's not right.
No, I did the math last night. He was twenty-eight when I met him. twenty-eight to thirty-nine, thirty-nine to fifty. It doesn't seem like that long but it is.
Long time gone, said RL. I still, sometimes-I feel like I'm going to walk around a corner and see him on the sidewalk. You know, just sitting around the house, and I think, maybe I'll give Taylor a call, see if he wants to go grab a beer. Down at the Mo Club. See if I can borrow his pickup.
It's not like that for me, said June. Not anymore.
She reached for the square bottle of whiskey and took a demure pull on it. RL admired the workings of her throat, the little hollow at the base of her neck, her fine collarbone. She was younger than Taylor and him and still quite a good-looking girl.
I've been going to church again lately, she said.
Get the hell out of here.
I'm not kidding. Sunday morning ten o'clock.
June blushed lightly. She was one of those transparent blondes where every feeling showed on her skin, pale or passionate. In tears she turned a blotchy red. RL had seen her in tears, not often.
I'm going to the Catholic one, said June. Weird, I know. A couple of the girls from work got me going there.
They got you all signed up? Human sacrifice in the basement and everything?
I think they quit doing that.
That's not what I hear.
It's safe to say that you would hate it, June said. I mean, you would hate even the good parts, which are all about doing good things and being nice to people in Central America and so on. They're so fucking earnest! But, you know, that's what I like about them.
You've always had an earnest streak.
And you've always been a cynical bastard.
With a heart as big as the great outdoors, RL said. That's me.
No, June said. That's somebody else.
Ten o'clock at night and the sun was well down, but the sky was lit a deep dark beautiful blue with the first few stars piercing it. The air was warm when it was still and then the river would blow a cool breeze through, rustling the leaves of the cottonwoods, riffling the water. RL felt a sadness in his chest that was like music, sad music. Taylor was gone, always gone. He had lived with this sadness eleven years until the jagged edges had worn smooth, like a river rock that he held in his hand, still warm from the day. RL felt almost a pleasure in it, the pleasure of touching something indisputable and real. He remembered the feeling of sitting in the waiting room at the hospital and holding her hand and waiting, that jagged feeling torn from him. Time had changed it into something different. It's just like ice around my heart, he thought, a line from a song he remembered. That wasn't it, exactly.
June said, I'll be standing in there singing a folk song and holding hands with some little old lady on either side of me and I'll just think, When did I turn into this? Peaceniks and bird-watchers.
Comfortable shoes, I bet.
Really comfortable shoes, said June.
Just then the bushes parted on the far side of the side channel, the island between them and the main branch of the river, and out into the twilight stepped a tall and serious-looking dark-headed girl with a baseball cap and a fishing pole. It was RL's daughter Layla, nineteen years old. In her shorts and sandals, in her long tan legs she waded the channel, water that swirled up to the hem of her shorts. She moved through the water almost silently, a fisherman's habit. Trout are very nervous fish, he remembered; a line from a book. She wore a Montana Grizzlies T-shirt and a kind of necklace from which dangled her forceps, her nippers and Gink.
Do any good? RL called out.
Layla came the rest of the way across the channel before she answered. Her power over the fish came because she respected them; she didn't walk through their lies or shout on a quiet night. She knew where to look to spot the subtle rises.
Dinks and whitefish, mostly, Layla said. They quit rising a while ago. I pulled an eighteen incher out of that seam off the bank, but that was right after we got here. Are you drunk?
Not yet, said RL. I wouldn't rule it out, though.
I'm going to go up to the house, said Layla.
Oh, sit with us a minute, said June. I haven't seen you since Christmas. How's college life?
Oh, you know, said Layla. Collegy.
Are you staying in the dorms next year?
Layla accepted her fate, laid her fly rod carefully against a tree and sat with them temporarily, cross-legged on the ground, ready to take flight.
Me and a couple of girlfriends got a place in Ballard, said Layla. Like a little house. I got a scooter to run back and forth to U-Dub, too, it's très, très cool until it rains.
It doesn't rain much in Seattle, does it?
It doesn't bother you as much as you might think. I mean, jeez, it can't be worse than February around here. At least the sun breaks through once in a while. No ice-fog.
Don't remind me, RL said. It's never going to be winter again.
June said, How's your love life?
I don't know, said Layla. How's yours?
And this just came out of her mouth so bitter and mean that it shut them all up. June had found a sore spot but RL didn't know what it was. This wasn't the kind of secret that Layla would ever share with him. It confused him, it made him sad the way that women were so closed to him. She was his daughter, his love, and yet a mystery.
Layla sprang to her feet in one lovely motion.
I'm really thirsty, she said. I'll see you up at the house.
She gathered her fly rod and left at once, a trail of negative ions in her wake. She hadn't meant to blurt this out, RL thought, but once it was said, it could not be unsaid, and after that none of them knew what to do.
When Layla was out of sight, June said, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to put her on the spot.
It wasn't your fault, said RL. She's been half impossible all summer.
Something's going on with her.
Your guess is just as good as mine, said RL.
Has she seen her mom since she's been back?
Not that I know of. She wouldn't necessarily tell me. Dawn and I have been in kind of a bad patch lately.
Is she talking to anybody at all?
RL felt a familiar unease rise in his chest, almost an anger. He knew perfectly well that he wasn't enough of a father to Layla, or father and mother combined. People had been letting him know this since she was in the seventh grade and her mother had run off with a wildlands firefighter named Parker. There was no way to be right about this. He had stuck it out with Layla, had gone to the choir concerts and parent-teacher conferences, had taught her what he could of how to be a person. Yet every woman in the world let him know that he would never be enough. RL accepted this but he did not wish to be reminded of his failures. He had not forgotten them.
June didn't press. RL's cigar had gone out and he lit it again in a fat cloud of smoke, took the square bottle of Johnnie Walker and sipped at it. They had done this once all together-him and Dawn, Taylor and June. Before Layla came at all. Again he felt that smooth sadness in his chest, for Taylor gone, for Layla, for lonely June and the promise they had all felt there together by the river. They were going to be happy, they were going to adventure and live long and have stories to tell. Instead, he was living the same story over and over. Taylor was gone, Dawn was so unhappy that her eyes crossed from the pressure of it. Only Layla, the shy star . . . RL really did love her. There was comfort in that.
Comfort also in the blue glow of the summer sky, the light finally starting to extinguish, the red glow of his cigar when he drew on it- like a red bumblebee-and the moon trying to rise out of the trees, the two of them, him and June, striped and shifting with moon shadow. Really there was no place he wanted to be except right here.
Remember the time we drove up out of Great Falls heading for Glacier? RL said. Was that you that borrowed the convertible?
Don't, she said.
I'm going to stop doing this, she said.
RL heard it but he didn't really hear it. All that time he had been thinking one thing and she had been thinking something completely different. He blinked the smoke out of his eyes and said, What do you mean?
This is the last time for me, June said. I'm not coming back next year. Taylor was a beautiful man but he's dead.
I know that, RL said. Don't you think I know that?
Well, I didn't. Not till a little while ago. Like you were saying before, Robert, I would turn a corner and expect him to be there, you know? I'd go to bed at night and half expect to find him lying there. Wake up in the middle of the night, hugging my pillow and dreaming it was him. I'm done with that.
He couldn't read her face in the gathering dark but he saw the way she put her hand up to her throat, a thing she did when she was sad or troubled. He said, You can't just be done.
I can, she said. I am.
Like turning off a faucet.
No, she said. No, it's not like that at all. It's just, you know, like water on rock. It takes a while but . . . You just wake up one morning and it's not there anymore. I mean, I'm not going to stop remembering him. I'm not going to stop loving him.
But I am going to stop acting like he's still here. Like he's going to walk through the door and everything's going to be OK.
You haven't been like that, RL said. He could feel something slipping away between them and he didn't want it to. He said, You've got your work, your friends.
Oh, crap, she said. I've been practicing this in my head for a week and I know it isn't going to come out right. Anyway. You're a good man and you've been a good friend to me and I've needed you, you know that. You've always been around when I needed you. But, Christ, Robert, you've got Layla and Dawn and what's her name; you've got your business; you've got your friends and your trips to New Orleans and wherever else-you're a busy man. I sleep alone, Robert, almost every night. More than you want to know, I know that, but still. I'm going to die and I know it, not too long from now, maybe, and I'm going to die alone because everybody does. But I don't want to live alone.
I'm sorry, RL said.
No, see that's not it! You've got nothing to be sorry about-you're a good man, Robert! I know I'm not saying this right. It's all mixed up in my mind.
They relapsed into silence then, water over rocks, a breeze in the leaves of the cottonwoods.
Cigarette, she said.
He lit one off the ash of his cigar and handed it to her.
RL felt like this was not happening, an unreal moment. Anger was rising in him but he didn't know why or at who. Not June. Maybe himself, who had failed again somehow. He didn't see how. He had never meant to be enough to her, but now he saw that he was not. He had put his shoulder to the wheel but it was not enough.
Whiskey, RL said, and she passed him the bottle.
June said, People die from not seeing the night sky, don't you think?
They don't die from it.
They die inside, and they don't even know it.
But they don't die from it. They just get numb.
Not me, she said. She reached over and took the bottle from his hand, then stood up from the rock and waded out into the water. RL flinched as he saw the cold water lap against her bare thighs, feeling a little sympathetic testicular cringe of his own. He didn't know what she was doing. She was being dramatic, and she was not a dramatic woman.
Here you are, said June. I am officially letting it go. All of it. I'm nobody's widow anymore.
From the Hardcover edition.