A place like this
originally published in Narrative Magazine
I AM THIRTEEN and full around the middle with bird legs and no chest, stuck halfway between child and girl. It is a summer of relentless heat. It comes on early and stays through the night—forces us to sleep in ragged fits with a washcloth pressed to our bellies. I am in the backyard of the Tavern with a pail, picking up cigarette butts. My mother runs the Tavern, and in the summer months it is my job to sweep the decks and clear the yard. Every morning I can hear her voice carrying out the open windows as she sings Carly Simon and washes glasses. And every afternoon Andy and I slip away to swim and fish and hike until the sun sinks down.
The morning shadows have retreated and I am sweating through my tank top, my brown hair knotted on top of my head. Andy comes walking down the long dirt drive like he does every day in the summer. He calls “Poppy” from so far down the road I swear I could hear him in my sleep. Andy is the one who’s shown me our whole world up here in the Yaak, and every time he stands on the edge of a river or the lip of a canyon, he looks out over all of it and tells me it’s God’s country. He says that’s because there isn’t anything up here besides what God made, and although we haven’t got much, we have a lot more than anyone else: in these rivers and larch and mountains. And maybe it’s the rest of the world that’s got it backward.
I cannot say when I met Andy because there never is much meeting people in the Yaak. People just are. But the thing about growing up alongside someone is, as you grow the spaces between you have a way of changing. And, just recently, I can see my thirteen to his fifteen, or my being a girl to his being a boy, or perhaps all the above, as obvious differences. What has always felt like an even keel now has swells and falls and mysterious new gaps to explore. I will know this young man for a very long time and our stories ripple out from this one afternoon.
Andy is following me around the yard, pushing his hair from his sweaty forehead.
“I hear there’s a new jumping spot on the river,” Andy says, and tosses a few butts in the pail.
“New how? These rivers and rocks been here a lot longer than any of us, and I doubt they’d take to you calling them new,” I say, and start to walk in the other direction.
He follows. “You know just what I mean. No one’s jumped it yet.”
“Says my brothers.”
Andy has always been a rather shy boy, with bright blond hair I find hard to look at in the sunlight. He has a sharp face but a soft queer way about him that fools most people into thinking he is kind and simple and only that. But it isn’t true. He is quick and bright and going places. From where I stand, his only true fault is his blind faith in his older brothers.
“Anyway, they’re there, and we could go too. It’s only going to get hotter,” he says. Andy wanting to hang out with his brothers is a new thing for him. I’ve become aware lately how quickly I might be left behind. He starts to walk back up the drive. As if my answer to anything he asks would never be anything other than yes.
“Hold up,” I say. I run inside to get my things.
The Yaak is nestled so far inside the Kootenai National Forest at the northwest corner of Montana, nine days out of ten you see more elk than people. It’s so far west you can almost spit into Idaho and so far north you can walk into Canada. Up here the seasons are wholeheartedly committed to being exactly what seasons should be. It’s hard for most of us to imagine a year passing by in any other way.
We walk up the river road and out of town, town being the mercantile, a laundry with a single washer and dryer, and two bars: the Dirty Shame and our Tavern. I tell Andy about a fight the night before between a few locals and two bikers. I saw it out the back window of our little apartment above the bar. After a few punches were thrown my mother came out and hosed the whole lot of them down till their beards were soaking wet.
“Put an end to that nonsense,” I say between laughs.
But Andy isn’t laughing. He’s more quiet than usual and I try to fill the space between us. When a truck comes up the road he moves me to the inside of the shoulder so he catches the gravel and dust. This isn’t something he’s ever done before. I like the way it feels, though, being looked after.
In six years, I will be visiting him in Reno for the weekend. He will grab my hip in much the same way and move me to the inside of the sidewalk on our way to a bar. And the gesture will take me back to this afternoon: young and rough and sunburned, just catching wind of what it would mean to lose him. We will dance in Reno until the sun comes up and we will kiss beneath electric neon signs. He will tell me all about his life there but will not ask me to join him. I’ll drive back to Montana with a hangover.
“We’re going to take the trail just past Boyd Creek, hike the backside of Friday Hill, and cut across the O’Connor place; it’s not too far on the other side,” he says.
“Didn’t know there was a jumping spot over there,” I say.
“Not like anyone’s ever been on the other side of the O’Connor place. Rest his soul. I told you it’s new,” Andy says, and we both make the sign of the cross.
“Nothing is new,” I say.
“He’d a shot you between the eyes without taking out his chew.”
We both laugh because it’s true. We start up the narrow trail along the creek, shaded by the heavy ceiling of green. I follow close behind, trying to keep in his footsteps.
In the Yaak fall is so colorful; those seas of green become swirling basins of oranges and yellows. Sometimes it feels right to invent new words for shades I’ve never seen before. Then the winds whip down the rivers to remind everyone of the chill that will swallow everything whole. The winters are so frozen and so long you can damn near forget there was another season before, and start to believe there may never be another after. It separates us from everyone else who could never live in a place like this, making us hard, strong, and proud. Spring comes too late and just in time to remind us that everything has a way to keep on going, and so do we. And in the summertime the sky is the biggest, bluest sky, as if it has the chance to expand while you sleep. And the few clouds shift and shape into creatures living only in the imagination as they roll toward the horizon.
It is just that kind of summer, hot in the day and hot in the night and filled with bugs that force you to slap yourself and leave welts along the fat parts of your thighs. The rivers are low enough to swim, and the huckleberries have grown fat enough to eat, and the days are so long they get to feeling like a lifetime.
I stop along the path every so often to pick handfuls of lilacs and Indian paintbrush. And then I have to run a bit to catch up with Andy. He’s grown so tall over the past year, I take two or three steps to his every one. Everything about him seems larger, from his voice to his hands to the space he takes up in my world. I want him to not just look at me but to really look at me, and I haven’t the slightest clue how to go about it.
We cut across the open field of the O’Connor place. The one-room house his daddy’s daddy built by hand has a For Sale sign posted out front, not that many people would ever see it. His homestead will fall back into the hands of the forest and in years to come start to slide and slope under the pressures of snow and sun, forgotten like a lot of the other places up here.
Many summers from now I will come back and stand at the end of this drive. I will try to imagine how it once looked, and try to imagine it still lived in. Imagine Andy and me, in a different lifetime, having stayed in the Yaak, living in a place like that. I leave my bundle of wildflowers at the edge of the drive and make the sign of the cross again.
We pick up an old overgrown logging road and walk for a while longer. The forests are crisscrossed with them, left behind from when this was a profitable and somewhat popular place to live and work. I like to imagine the Tavern filled with men after a long day, covered in dirt and smelling of timber, and the talks that must have taken place in every crew cab across the county. I will always wonder what kind of man Andy might have grown into if life up here still looked like that. And what kind of life the two of us might have made had he never left.
“You excited?” I ask.
“ ’Bout? Just another hole. Though Daniel says it’s the highest jump they found yet. Knowing him it means something.”
“No, stupid. You excited for next week?”
Andy shrugs, looks up at the sky, his green eyes squinting from the high sun, and keeps on charging forward through the thicket. When school starts next week it will be the first time we’ve ever been separated. He will start at the high school in Troy down the hill and meet all sorts of new people, new girls. And although he doesn’t seem to give it much thought it is the only thing I’ve thought about all summer. He will take new classes and meet teachers who will confirm what I already know to be true about him: he is far brighter than he lets on and it will be at some point impossible to keep him here. And pretty soon Andy will start talking about college, talking about leaving, talking about a life beyond these county lines.
As we near the jumping spot there’s the hush of moving water and the hollered laughs of Andy’s older brothers and their friends as they egg each other on to climb higher and jump farther. A break in the oak groves opens to a landing of smooth rocks and a bend in the river. The waters rush and fall over an old logjam, spilling into a perfect pool below. Trees tower over us, the sunlight passing through them in sharp ribbons. There has never been a time I am not reminded of my smallness while standing on the edge of a river. Andy is right, goddamn holy.
The older kids are older in all the ways I am not, and I feel myself retreat a bit beneath my oversize T-shirt. They are careless and cool, and they chain-smoke cigarettes, and they reek of challenge and boredom. They are as teenagers everywhere are, and always have been, entitled and fearless as if one may truly live forever.
Andy’s oldest brother throws two cans of Kokanee at him and says, “Hey, pussy.” His brothers are versions of Andy I do not know yet. They are filled out in the shoulders and thighs, with scars and burn marks from easy mistakes, and thin beards that haven’t grown in right just yet.
We sit on the rocks and sip our warm beer near a cluster of high school girls in bikinis, sunning themselves. They pass around a bottle of Old Crow and speak in fast riddles I can’t make sense of. From the corner of my eye, I watch their mannerisms. They move so easily and lean on their elbows. Their hair is combed smooth. In a few years, I will be those high school girls, drunk in the afternoon and waiting for something exciting to happen.
I sit this way and that and uncross and recross my legs in a patch of sunlight. Andy stretches and cracks his knuckles. He also seems to be taking notes on the boys and how boys are supposed to act. They push each other in the river, shotgun their beers, and climb all over their soaking-wet girls to kiss them. It is all a language he and I do not yet speak. I am suddenly very aware of how close Andy is sitting to me.
“You want some?” One of the girls holds the bottle out in my direction. The rest of them don’t seem to notice. “I’m Beth Anne.” She gets off her towel and comes closer to us. I can feel Andy stare at the way she moves, her legs long and glowing, slathered in baby oil, and the crease where they meet her hipbones beneath the red ties of her swimsuit.
In a few years, he will look at me in the same way while I run around half-dressed and holding a beer in the backyard of the Tavern on the Fourth of July. He will be home for the summer, after his first year at college. And he will run his tongue across his teeth and tell me I’ve grown a lot. He will set me on his lap during fireworks and kiss my neck. And late in the night when our friends drive away he will come up to my bedroom.
When Beth sits next to us I feel suffocated by my sudden awareness: my sunburned kneecaps and unkempt hair; my one-piece bathing suit covering my pudgy belly; how near she sits to Andy. There is an intense rearing up inside of me, a need to keep him for myself, to take him back to my bedroom or our secret fishing hole, away from the rest of the world. I take the bottle, and in wanting to look like I know a thing or two, I drink more than a reasonable amount.
“Right on,” the girl says when I pass the bottle back. She’s looking at Andy, wanting him to be looking at her. His eyes are on the water. Andy and I have been stealing beer from the Tavern all summer and sitting on the river late at night getting silly and never knowing what to do with our knees when they touch. But I’ve never really been drunk before. It swims behind my eyes and sits heavy in my limbs. And it lets me relax into the measured commotion of the afternoon.
The boys swim across the river one by one. Their arms, strong and confident, cut through the fast water. On the other side they climb the cliff’s rocky edge, pulling themselves up by the exposed tree roots jutting from the stone; their shorts stick to the insides of their shaking thighs. They push wet hair from their eyes and look to the pool below, calculating the proper jump. Their friends call to them from the other side to climb higher, and yell a collection of curse words and names that are sometimes creative but usually not.
The water, glass-bottle green, chugs along the banks, picking up speed as it nears the falls. Down below, churning up sediment and silt, it becomes a listless brown, white foam collecting around the edges of the pool, before it makes its way on farther south. I hold my breath before every boy jumps as everyone counts to three. Serious looks come over their faces as they stand at the edge of the cliff, take a deep breath, and then launch themselves out into the open air, arms crossed over their chests like corpses. They hang in the air for a moment between the trees lining both sides of the river, suspended in a space carved out by eons of water. A few seconds pass, seconds with meat on their bones, before and after separated only by the hoot and holler of a boy as he breaks the surface again. Everyone cheers and drinks their beer. The girls sigh and go back to their conversation. And the whole thing starts over again.
Andy does his best to act like one of the guys, drinks and swears, and before I know it I can’t tell if he’s acting anymore. I can see on him how things are changing for and against us. The boy he’s been and the guy he is about to become collide and mix all afternoon. It makes him more visible to everyone else. Next year when high school down in Troy is in full tilt, he will date one of those older girls. I’ll see them making out in town behind the bowling alley after school, but keep it to myself. When the whole thing ends he’ll come knocking on my door late at night with his first broken heart and pretend like it doesn’t matter so much.
Andy works up enough courage to make the jump. He takes off his shirt and hands it to me, which I like very much. He asks if I’m going to watch.
“ ’Course, I’ll climb down and watch from the bottom,” I say.
I drape his shirt around my neck and lace my sneakers. I am drunker than I have been before but it makes me feel confident rather than scared. The world feels both foreign and safe at the same time, as if anything might happen. I climb down the rocks next to the falls. They are slick with years of moss and mist, and the thistles leave fine red lines along my legs. I nearly lose my footing between boulders and go tumbling into the river. Down below, without the cluster of people and all the nonsense, breathing feels easier and I’m glad to be rid of them.
I follow the river a few yards downstream. I’m more myself among the trees, wrapped in silence and the smell of dirt, than I am anywhere else. This place is as much a part of me as bones and heartbeats. I wade into a soft sand bank and allow my feet to sink a little. I watch Andy climb up the rock ledge. I enjoy being drunk. The sun is warmer. And I want more than before to be close to Andy. I want things from him I don’t even know how to properly want yet, but I feel them turning in me like the waters in this pool, dragging up whatever lies at the bottom. During his senior year he will get in a car accident and break his leg and his collarbone. And I’ll care for him over the winter because his mother will be too drunk to do it. I’ll lose my virginity to him in his bedroom the afternoon just after his cast comes off and right before he leaves for college.
“Poppy, hey Poppy, Poppy.” I hear Andy yell and it brings me back. I see his thin limbs clinging to rock, and I can hear in his voice he is smiling. I wave up at him and he climbs higher. I hold my breath every time he stretches for a new tree limb just out of reach. He almost loses his footing and I scream. We have grown up in these woods and I know Andy can handle himself. But I’ve also known people to die at the very things they were experts at handling.
When I am twenty-five I will move away from the Yaak for the first time, to work as a waitress in Salt Lake. But I will come back at twenty-nine to care for my mother while she dies. The same year Andy will come home to run skidder with his brother and save money. We will go for long drives and talk about our years away like they happened to other people. When his dog dies we will bury the body near this river. And for a little while it will seem like the life we should have had, had we never left at all.
I’m standing in the sandy water and wiggling my toes. I try to shield my eyes from the sun. Andy’s pale figure dips between trees and boulders as he climbs higher. Something in the sand is stabbing at the underside of my foot, the fleshy pad beneath my toes. I reach into the murky water and pull loose what I thought was a stick wedged into the moss and sand. But instead I am holding a rib bone in my hand. It is still tattered with flesh and bits of fur.
I look into the water passing my calves. What I’d thought was a sandy bank is actually a dead baby deer. My feet are buried in what is left of its insides. Its eye sockets are open and eaten away by the fish. I can see how it has been worn down by the river. My reaction is slow. I throw up beer foam and burning Old Crow. Quick as it comes up, the river washes it away.
My trance is broken by the sound of Andy, hollering as he plunges through the air and into the pool below. He disappears beneath the churn and currents. I take my feet out of the deer and stand on the rocky bank with the bone in my hand like a talisman. I still have Andy’s T-shirt around my shoulders and I smell it. I am convinced the dead baby deer is some larger symbolic gesture from the forest. It needs a proper burial. I am not strong enough to swim the water-soaked carcass out into the current, allowing it to float downstream. I think maybe I can haul it onto the shore and bury it.
I find its hind legs beneath the surface. One is pinned beneath a huge rock. I pull with what strength I have, drunk and sun-worn. I can feel it give a little, slide over smooth rocks. But every inch that comes out of the water seems to double its weight. I lose my footing and slip. The deer slides back into the water and I land twisted on a pile of rocks, smashing my elbow and the back of my head. Warm blood trickles down my neck.
Andy is coming out of the woods and toward me saying, “You have to jump, you have to try that,” and then his tone changes and he is crouching next to me. “What the hell?” He’s worried or angry. I can’t tell. He brushes the wet hair from his eyes, droplets falling on my shoulders. His fingers, chilled from the river water, are pressed against my neck, searching my head for the gash. And I don’t care that it hurts. He’s touching me, and whatever was simple between us isn’t anymore. These feelings have no names, like the colors of the larch in the fall.
“I’m fine,” I say. “There’s a dead baby deer right here in the river. And I don’t want to just leave it there alone.”
He’s looking at the water. “Are you okay?”
“I don’t want it to just be left there. It needs a proper burial.” I can feel myself about to cry, and know that I sound tired and irrational, but I mean it. I mean these things. He’s wiping the blood off the back of my head and my neck with his T-shirt.
“I was trying to drag it out to bury it.”
“No, that’s ridiculous. We don’t even have a shovel.”
He goes to the bank and stares into the water, looks back at me and agrees. The party above us now seems years away, and I’m pleased to have him all to myself again. I don’t want that other world pressing in on us. He takes a few very deep breaths, and the muscles on his back tighten. He still has a boy’s body but I can see it, the strength of shoulder blades preparing to break him into something new.
He gropes through the water and finds the legs, and with one hard tug he breaks the fawn loose from the riverbed. He wades out as far as he can and then swims with one arm, hauling the body into the strongest part of the current. When he can neither hold on nor swim any longer he shouts back to me. “Poppy, say a prayer.” And he lets go of its legs.
I’m standing on the bank shivering despite the hot July sun and I can’t feel my head throbbing. Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. I say the words out loud, but barely.
Three weeks shy of my thirtieth birthday will be the last time I see Andy. I will be half asleep on the foldout bed in his mother’s basement. And he will wake up before sunrise to log. When he climbs on the bed to kiss me I will open only one eye. His stiff jeans and his flannel will smell distinctly of cut timber and oil. His hands will be cold, though he hasn’t left the house yet. His beard will bristle against the soft part of my neck. I will be asleep again before he closes the front door.
Andy is swimming back toward me but the current is stronger here and the bend farther down seems to suck the water like a vacuum. His wet blond hair is clinging to his face. And for the briefest of instants I see a real kind of fear on him while his arms cut through the water, fast and deliberate. I’m running along the bank, warm blood on my neck, shouting to him. I’m yelling, demanding he come to me like a dog, as if this is a choice he’s making against me. Ahead of him a fallen oak juts out into the water and he heads right for it. His pale body slams into the trunk and for a moment he slips under the water and I stop breathing.
I’ll still be in bed that morning when his brother calls. Right away I’ll hear in his voice that perfectly panicked frequency we all adopt when something so terrible has happened that the words for it don’t exist. He’ll tell me there was an accident. Later, they’ll tell me it took three men to get the skidder off him. They’ll tell me Andy died instantly. After the phone call, I’ll get back in bed and wait for him to come home for lunch.
I’m repeating myself when he climbs out of the river, palms bloodied from hauling himself up the fallen tree. I’m half praying and half apologizing. He stands hunched over, hands on his knees, spitting up water and trying to catch his breath. I’m afraid to get near him. Once he can speak, he tries to laugh, one of those confused laughs we sometimes use at funerals, because the irony of being alive is more than we know how to articulate. “Shit,” he says, and holds his side. He takes the bloodied T-shirt from my shoulder and wipes his bleeding palms on it.
We sit down on the fallen tree. His ribs are already turning black and blue, and he can only take shallow breaths. His wet jean shorts are touching my bare thigh. He puts his arm around me and the blood and the water mix into a light-red river down my arm. Water from his hair drips down my face and the back of my neck. I apologize again. I burn this into my memory, us sitting here on the tree, young and bloodied and halfway between everything. We are quiet for a long time before one of us finally decides it’s time to head home. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. Amen. I make the sign of the cross at the river just before we hike out.
At Andy’s funeral I will recite the same prayer and set a bundle of Indian paintbrush on his mahogany casket, though he isn’t inside. When no one’s looking I’ll slip in the T-shirt from this afternoon, which I saved all those years, the blood stains brown and faded and half forgot. His brother will give me a vial of Andy’s ashes. I’ll sleep with them on my bedside table for a week. And then one hot morning I will wake up and hike along Boyd creek, and past the O’Connor place and the backside of Friday Hill. And I’ll find the logjam, and the falls, and the pool below. Not a branch will feel out of place.