It took Fenton two days to climb the canyon where his Uncle Jack was camped alone, building a rock dam for the Sierra Power Company. From time to time Fenton rested long enough to let the altitude sickness pass, and drank from a stream so icy it made his head ache. Late in the second afternoon he picked his way through a field of boulders toward a wall of stones five or six feet high spanning the narrowest part of the canyon. Water poured from a pipe at the base of the wall. His uncle appeared to be troweling cement, fitting a stone in place. He moved slowly, an old straw hat shading his eyes. As Fenton approached, his uncle put his elbows up on the wall and squinted.
“Well, Fenton. You could knock me over with a feather. What brings you up here, anyway?” He reached out his hand. As always, Fenton felt as if he was gripping a baseball glove filled with concrete. His uncle’s voice still had the adenoidal quality that fascinated Fenton as a child. The bridge of his uncle’s nose had been broken so often that it could never reestablish itself.
“Aunt Francesca sent me up here to keep an eye on you,” Fenton said.
“The heck she did.”
“Coleman sent a bottle of cognac and some of your favorite candy.”
“The heck you say.”
Under the brim of the battered straw hat his uncle’s face was sallow, deeply lined. His oversized jawbone seemed nearly skeletal beneath the white stubble. But appreciation flickered in his pale blue eyes. In his fighting days, Coleman had been his sparring partner, and since that time his best friend.
Fenton’s uncle waved the trowel.
“Let’s get over to camp,” he said. “We’ll heat up some coffee. Time to quit work anyway. Just let me rinse off these tools.”
Near the edge of the lake Fenton could see a blue tent, and food bags on a rope between two twisted pines. His uncle had shrunk since the last time Fenton had seen him. He walked with a stoop, his size 14 boots lifted in slow motion, his shoulder blades stuck out under his work shirt. Fenton’s uncle had been a powerhouse. Fighting hadn’t been enough of an outlet for his energy; he’d farmed 10 acres and done competition ballroom dancing at the same time. When he quit the ring, farming and dancing hadn’t been enough; he’d gone to work for the railroad too, and when the railroad retired him he’d persuaded Coleman to let him build rock dams alone in the high country. It was hard for Fenton to remember that the skeletal figure shuffling along the trail ahead of him had once carried the muscle mass of a heavyweight boxer.
Fenton lowered his pack and studied the campsite while his uncle filled an enamel pot with lake water. On two sides of the lake, granite walls slanted up to peaks that were turning pink in the sunset. On the far shore was a rock slide, a patch of winter snow, splashes of color where flowers clustered. The surface of the water rippled and sparkled in a faint breeze. A swampy meadow sloped up the canyon. When the job was finished and the water rose to cover the meadow the dam might store thirty acre-feet. Fenton looked at the thick rock wall, and at his uncle bending over the kerosene stove. How had he built that wall, alone, in a summer? He must be fading fast. Coleman would not have let him come up here, looking as he did now.
“How much higher do you have to build the dam, Uncle Jack?”
“Maybe a foot.”
“How long do you think it will take?”
“Two, three weeks.”
“What if I help you?”
“Sure, if you want to. Then we’ll go fishing.” He adjusted the burner on the kerosene stove and settled himself, wincing, into a camp chair. “Thought I’d have it done by now. That darn Coleman didn’t sent me enough bags of cement, the first month. Said he didn’t want to overload the mules. I fooled him. I figured out how to do the job with less cement. I think he was trying to trick me into going fishing. Heck, I’ll go fishing when I’m good and ready.”
Fenton pulled his chair around and sat facing his uncle, bone-weary from the two-day climb. The sun slanting on his head and shoulders felt hot, comforting. Somehow the sun in the mountains always seemed warmer just before it disappeared.
“Aunt Francesca told me about your operation, Uncle Jack.”
His uncle stared at the hissing burner.
“She tell you it’s terminal?”
His uncle worked at something between his front teeth with his thumbnail.
“Yep. Doc gave me three to six months. I’ve had four of em.”
“You can beat it, Uncle Jack. There are things you can do. Power of mind.”
His uncle nodded.
“I’ve read about it.”
“People get rid of their own cancers.”
His uncle shook his head.
“I think I’m ready to quit the ring, Fenton.”
Fenton was not prepared for this. Dying, maybe. Not giving up. In his uncle’s living room, photos of champions lined the mantle. Max Baer. Jack Sharkey. Mickey Walker. Under their flamboyant signatures they’d written dedications such as: “To Jack Patrick, a great fighter and good friend.” Jack had expected to become a champ himself until the day he stepped in the ring with Lomski. Lomski was a killer. They’d carried Jack out on a stretcher. He’d had the good sense to quit the ring while his brain was still intact. Maybe the cancer was another Lomski. Maybe under the circumstances the best that Fenton could offer was hollow sentiments.
“Uncle Jack, look what you’ve done here this summer. What would Coleman do without you?”
“He might have to get busy and do some work. He needs to get rid of that gut.”
Fenton remembered the cognac and candy. He went to his pack and rummaged, wishing they were gifts from him. In a way, they were. He’d carried them here on his back.
His uncle held the bottle up and grinned at the label.
“Coleman’s memory ain’t so bad, anyway. We’ll have a nip or two after I cook us some dinner.”
As Fenton watched his uncle haul down a food bag, he envied the friendship between his uncle and Coleman. They’d punched each other’s lights out, and sent each other cognac.
Fenton put up his tent not far from his uncle’s. As tired as Fenton was, sleep would not come. An owl hooted across the lake. His uncle groaned in his sleep, a sound of pain. Fenton tried to formulate a plan. On impulse, he’d turned an important court case over to his partner and taken two weeks off—maybe more. His uncle could drop dead any time, Francesca had said, a massive stroke, heart failure. Jack hated the thought of being a vegetable in a hospital bed, stuck full of tubes and needles, taking forever to go. He’d seen friends like that, she said. So had she. Fenton had seen one, himself. Francesca half suspected Jack had gone up there to die.
Aunt Francesca’s phone call had forced Fenton to look at some things he’d been putting off. By the time Fenton was in second grade his uncle had bought him a little pair of red boxing gloves and was teaching him how to defend himself. His uncle would stand on his knees and crouch down to Fenton’s height and if Fenton landed a good punch, his uncle would fall over and pretend to be knocked out. If he lay too still, Fenton would get afraid and plead with him to wake up. Even before his father left, Fenton looked forward to his uncle’s visits. Fenton would run out the door to be picked up like a rag doll and spun around the yard shrieking, pretending his arms were wings, soaring above the earth and all its constraints. When his uncle couldn’t visit on Christmas or Fenton’s birthday, a gift would arrive in the mail—a boy scout knife, a pocket watch, a souvenir of some far-off city where he’d gone to fight or his job on the railroad had taken him. Then Fenton reached the age of snobbery and ambition. Twice in public he’d pretended not to recognize his uncle. Once, at a railroad crossing Fenton sat in an open convertible with friends as his uncle drifted past the windshield in his oily overalls, standing on the cowcatcher of the engine. Their eyes met. Fenton gave no sign. In the train station in San Francisco one day, in the company of a big player from Los Angeles Fenton found himself walking toward his uncle in his brakeman’s uniform. Their eyes met. Fenton looked away without acknowledgment. After that, at family weddings or funerals their talk was stilted, impersonal. Maybe Fenton was being given a second chance. He decided he’d go along with whatever his uncle wanted. He’d help with the dam and then they’d go fishing. If his uncle suddenly got worse he would . . .what? Take him back to the doctors? Fenton refused to think that far ahead.
For a week Fenton helped his uncle select boulders from the rock slide and carry them to the dam. He mixed cement and learned to trowel it artfully, shaping a cavity to match a rock. His uncle stopped often to rest. Certain motions hurt him. Fenton could see him wince, and pale, and try to catch his breath. Fenton took over more of the heavy work, as well as the cooking and cleaning up. One day he got his uncle to take the codeine his doctor had prescribed. It made Jack groggy. He stumbled and dropped a stone, and nearly smashed his foot. Fenton persuaded him to stay in camp and rest. The next day his uncle was back at work, refusing the pills.
“I’d rather work and hurt,” he grumbled, “than sit around like a vegetable.”
Many times Fenton was on the verge of trying to explain why he’d cut his uncle in public long ago. But it sounded false. Did he expect forgiveness, after 30 years? And what if his uncle didn’t remember, or hadn’t even noticed him in his button-down clothes?
Once in a while Fenton would ask something about his uncle’s life. Things Coleman knew, Aunt Francesca knew. Fenton wanted to hear them first-hand. His uncle’s fight career was only part of it. He’d won a trip to Cuba for his ballroom dancing. He’d learned a European language and gone to visit relatives in Austria; To everyone in the family his uncle had loomed larger than life. Nikita Khrushchev had given him a medallion when he was a guard on Khrushchev’s pullman car, crossing America. Nikita had invited him to visit Russia. Aunt Francesca had told Fenton that Jack valued the medallion more than all his fight trophies. The blood of Slavs mingled in his veins along with that of giant Austrians. Maybe as he saw it he’d been singled out for recognition by the modern king of Slavs. But Fenton could seldom find the right time for questions. His uncle worked slowly, preoccupied, needing all his energy. Fenton could see him fading, a whole world, fading. His answers were vague, as if these events concerned a distant relative or another lifetime. Fenton had often wondered what became of the killer, Lomski.
“Lomski?” His uncle stared at the little crackling campfire Fenton had made with wood Coleman sent up on the mules.
“Your last fight.”
“Oh.” A pause. “Well, he fought some more. I heard he got his jaw broke.”
“Did he quit the ring?”
“He must of, sometime.”
“Did he ever make it big?”
That seemed to be all there was in the file on Lomski.
“Aunt Francesca tells me you went to visit the family in Austria.”
“She said you ate cherries from a tree in front of the house where grandma was born a hundred years ago.”
“You ate cherries.”
“Yeah.” His jaw worked slowly. Even when he wasn’t eating, his jaw moved gently around like the jaw of a ruminant. This was something new, a new behavior.
“Aunt Francesca told me you had a cousin who was seven feet tall.”
That seemed to ring a bell.
“Ludwig. He was a lieutenant in the Emperor Franz-Joseph’s guards.”
Fenton caught his uncle’s eye.
“Grandpa’s first cousin, right?”
His uncle nodded. “Your grandpa was a braumeister. Ever taste his beer?”
“You bet,” Fenton said. “He gave me a taste when I was five years old. I remember the flavor to this day.”
“They don’t make beer like that any more,” his uncle said, and fell silent again, remote, his jaw working, his gaunt frame straightening slowly with each breath and then slumping again as he exhaled.
Fenton had come too late for his uncle’s world. Too late for redemption. “What?” he could hear his uncle say, eyes blank. “Convertible? Train station?”
As the past grew more remote, though, his attention shifted to things that were right in front of him.
“God, look at the gold in that sky!” he would exclaim, some mornings, hitching up his red suspenders as he came out of the tent. Or: “Darn, this is good soup!” as he slurped the reconstituted beef or chicken vegetable Fenton had fixed for dinner. Or he would lean down from his chair to study the ground: “Will you look at this fool ant,” he would say, reaching stiffly to pick up a piece of cracker and break it into crumbs small enough for an ant to carry.
Or he would sit while a pair of striped chipmunks ran up his legs and perched on his knees, where they stuffed their cheek pouches with granola. He would bring his face down close to them and say things like, “Don’t you fatsos have enough granola stored for the winter yet?” And: “Are you keeping a lookout for that bad hawk that ate Fred?”
One morning Fenton’s uncle came out of his tent barefoot, in his long underwear, with his eyes vacant. He held onto the tent flap with one hand as if afraid he might fall.
Fenton touched his shoulder.
“Are you all right?”
Fenton took his uncle’s arm and guided him to a chair. His uncle sat without moving, staring into space. Aunt Francesca had told Fenton his uncle might have tiny strokes at first as the cancer spread to the brain. The doctor had explained it. There would be short lapses, minor malfunctions with fast recovery, and finally big strokes that might kill him. How serious was this? Fenton wondered if he should look for it. He offered his uncle some coffee. His uncle seemed unaware of it, but sat upright, and his pulse was strong. Fenton peeked into his uncle’s tent and saw nothing that looked like a radio. What should he do? If he went for help, his uncle could be alone for days in this condition. And the pack train would not be here for another week. Fenton didn’t see that he had much choice. The sun was still edging its way down the peaks into the canyon. Fenton worked shoes onto his uncle’s feet, covered his legs with a blanket and threw a down jacket over his shoulders. Fenton waited a while and when there was no change he walked over to the dam. He could keep an eye on his uncle from where he was working. When he came back to camp at noon he got his uncle to swallow a little water. His uncle looked up in surprise.
“Fenton, where have you been?”
“Working on the dam. How do you feel?”
“I don’t know.” His uncle checked the position of the sun with a puzzled frown. “I don’t remember working.”
“You didn’t. You didn’t recognize me when you got up, this morning.”
His uncle nodded. “Doc said that might happen.” He threw the blanket off his legs and looked down at his lap. There was a dark stain in his crotch. His lip curled in disgust.
“Jesus,” he said, trying to stand up. “I peed in my pants, Fenton.”
“Okay,” Fenton said, “sit down and I’ll get you some clean ones. He went into his uncle’s tent and found underwear, meanwhile looking for the radio. No luck. Hanging from a cord on the tent wall was a silver medallion. Fenton took a moment to study it. It featured an embossed hammer and sickle, stars and stripes, and two hands clasped in friendship. It was beautifully cast. The great man had evidently seen something in Fenton’s uncle. Maybe it tickled little Khrushchev to be guarded by this giant American tovarich. Outside, Fenton pulled the wet long Johns off his uncle and sat him down to work the clean ones over his feet. Fenton was shocked to see how thin his uncle’s legs were, how his ribs stuck out. His skin seemed to hang from his bones in sheets. He was grumbling with anger and self-loathing.
“Come on, Uncle Jack, it’s no big deal. You’re fine, now.”
His uncle stood and let Fenton pull the underwear up, get his arms in, button the front. Fenton got a plaid shirt and Levis out of the tent. His uncle took over the dressing.
“I want you to cremate me, Fenton.”
This got him. His uncle laughed, but it hurt, and he ended, coughing. He winced, working his arms into the shirt.
“No. When the time comes.”
“There’s plenty of time for that. Coleman tells me you have a two-way radio.”
“What do you want a radio for?”
“Suppose something like this happens—something worse. I should know how to work it.”
“Sure,” his uncle said. “I’ll show you, one of these days.”
“How about now?”
“It’s in the tent. It’s still in the box,”
“Can I get it?”
“Plenty of time. I’ll dig it out tomorrow.”
He was stalling. Why? Fenton wasn’t even sure he wanted the radio. He wanted Uncle Jack to have what he wanted, whatever that might be. But Fenton also wanted some options.
The next day he insisted on seeing the radio, He read the instructions. He switched it on to test it. Nothing. He opened a panel.
“Where are the batteries, Uncle Jack?”
“They must be in the tent, somewhere.”
“Can I look?”
Fenton couldn’t find them.
“Darned if I know,” Uncle Jack said. “Maybe Coleman didn’t pack them.”
Fenton studied the vacant face across the camp table, the lantern jaw slowly working around a piece of hard cracker. His uncle knew the importance of the radio for a man working alone in the high country. Were his survival instincts crumbling along with his memory? Was Aunt Francesca right about suicide?
“Uncle Jack, what do you want me to do?”
His uncle grinned, as if his little stroke had never occurred.
“Take me fishing.”
“Where?” The lake near the campsite was too shallow for fish. It froze to the bottom in winter. Uncle Jack tipped his head sideways.
“Up there. The canyon branches off. There’s a little glacier and a lake about so big, but it’s deep. Good fishing.”
“What if you have another stroke up there?”
“What if it doesn’t?”
“You can hike down for the helicopter.”
“You could be dead by the time I got back.”
“I could be dead, here.”
He had a point. In fact, his capacity for logic reassured Fenton.
“What about the dam?”
“Heck, it’s so near done, it’ll do the job the way it is.” He waved at the sky. “We better go while the weather’s good. Sometimes we get a big storm this time of year.” He paused as if to gauge the effect of his argument. “It might be the last time I ever go fishing, Fenton.”
At the head of the meadow where crystal water tumbled out of the canyon over boulders the climb grew steep. His uncle had wanted to carry a backpack, but Fenton talked him out of it. Fenton stuffed everything into his own pack and tied two sleeping bags to the frame in case they stayed overnight. At that altitude without a down bag, they could be dead of hypothermia by morning. The fishing trip seemed to give his uncle fresh momentum. Even so, he tired quickly, and they stopped often to rest. The pain was still with him. He never spoke of it, but Fenton would see it in his face or notice him trembling and twisting or tensing in a particular way. Or his breathing came with great effort.
As they climbed higher along the stream the canyon narrowed. Granite walls rose a thousand feet on either side. They worked their way up on mossy steps between boulders until they found themselves in a meadow full of wildflowers. Fenton’s uncle kept stooping or kneeling, fighting the pain to touch the flowers. “Look here, Fenton. Pink clover. Columbine. And look at the purple primrose.” Some of the plants Fenton recognized, most he did not. “Look at the marigolds, Fenton.” And, “Imagine finding penstamon this time of year.” Fenton would help him struggle to his feet and climb a bit farther. From his uncle’s sickly face and labored breathing Fenton was not sure they’d make it all the way. Several times he urged returning to camp, but his uncle protested. “No, no, we’re almost there,” he said, and seemed to find new energy for the climb.
The lake lay in a three-sided bowl of granite with a narrow stone shelf at one side for camping, and above it a glacier that stretched a hundred yards up the slope. On the other side of the lake a single dwarf pine clung to a crack in the cliff. At the open end of the lake, the way they’d come up, the meadow and the moss-lined stream sloped away into the canyon. Beyond stood rank after rank of granite peaks all the way to the northern horizon.
“I wanted you to see this place,” Fenton’s uncle said. “This is where I want you to scatter my ashes.”
Fenton busied himself unpacking the fishing gear. Every few seconds a fish burst from the surface and plunked musically back into the dark blue water. Fenton welcomed the chance to think for a while about something else than eternity and his uncle’s imminent demise.
They fished until the sun slid behind the western peak. They kept hauling in big rainbows. Fenton wanted to throw some of them back.
“Fill the creels,” his uncle said. “Fill the creels.”
“What are we going to do with them all?”
“Freeze em. Take em back.”
He seemed as excited as a child hunting Easter eggs. Fenton didn’t argue. If it was his uncle’s last chance to catch a limit, Fenton was glad to humor him.
They cleaned fish and washed them where the stream ran out of the lake. His uncle set aside two big ones for dinner and packed the rest into the bulging creels. “Put these in the snow, Fenton, they’ll be froze solid by morning.” He was shivering; Fenton’s hands were numb from the water. Before Fenton cooked dinner on the little stove he got his uncle into his sleeping bag, half sitting against the backpack and a boulder. His uncle complimented Fenton on the soup, and smacked his lips over the fish. After dinner Fenton poured out the last of the cognac. His uncle drank it at a gulp, and worked his way farther into the sleeping bag. When Fenton finished cleaning the dishes his uncle was staring at the sky. The tip of the eastern peak was a glowing, upended anvil. Floating high overhead was an eagle or an enormous hawk. It wheeled, dived into the shadow of a peak and swooped up, flashing red-gold as its wings caught the sun again. Fenton felt as if he was up there inside the bird’s skin, feeling the rush of air under his wings, the working muscles, the adjustment of pinions for guidance. It was the way he’d felt swooping and soaring around the back yard as a child, weightless in his uncle’s huge hands. When the bird disappeared behind a peak, Fenton discovered his uncle’s eyes fixed on him.
“I wish I’d seen more of you, Fenton.”
Fenton could not answer right away. Did his uncle remember the train crossing, the snub in the station? Was he letting Fenton off the hook?
“Never mind,” his uncle said. “You don’t need to explain.” His eyes blinked sleepily. “I thought you’d come,” he said. “I didn’t know, but I thought maybe you would.”
Then he was asleep.
In the morning Fenton made his uncle stay in his sleeping bag while reflected light from the peaks warmed the canyon and Fenton fixed breakfast. After breakfast his uncle got up, walked stiffly to the edge of the meadow and relieved himself. As he turned toward camp he stumbled and fell on his hands and knees. Fenton ran to help him up. He could barely stand. With Fenton holding his arm he shuffled a few steps at a time, then stopped to rest.
“Gosh,” he said, between labored breaths, “I don’t know what’s the matter with me.”
Fenton got him into his sleeping bag, where he seemed to doze while Fenton scoured the breakfast dishes with sand. From time to time Fenton looked back from the edge of the water, wondering what to do. After a while his uncle opened his eyes and struggled to sit up. Fenton helped him get propped up against the boulder. His uncle asked to see the fish in the creels. He tapped his knuckles against the canvas and seemed pleased that the fish were frozen solid.
“How do you feel, Uncle Jack?”
The creels slipped from his uncle’s hand. His voice seemed to come from a great distance.
“I don’t know. I think I’m on the ropes, Fenton.”
“Rest a while,” Fenton said. “You’ll feel better.”
His uncle gazed at the sky.
“There’s a storm coining. Maybe you better get the helicopter.”
“A storm?” Fenton studied the thin, feathery clouds high overhead.
“We could have a gale blowin before long,” his uncle said. “The helicopter wouldn’t be able to land.”
Fenton knew it was a possibility at this time of year.
“We don’t need a helicopter, Uncle Jack. I’ll carry you if I have to.”
They both smiled at this bravado. Fenton could stumble in the boulders and the fall alone could kill his uncle. Fenton computed his options. Maybe he could risk waiting a few hours to see if his uncle improved. If Fenton left early in the afternoon he might be back with the helicopter by dark the next day. That is, if he didn’t break an ankle going downhill too fast, and if the helicopter was not on some other mission.
“I’ll stay a while longer, Uncle Jack.”
“That’ll be fine.” His uncle was gazing serenely at the sky. Storm or no storm, helicopter or no helicopter, he seemed content. He seemed too content. Fenton’s suspicions suddenly congealed: The glacier, the frozen fish.
“Uncle Jack, did you plan this?”
His uncle’s surprise was too convincing.
“What? Plan what?”
“I’ve read articles about people who jumped off the Golden Gate bridge and survived. Every one of them said that on the way down they wished they hadn’t done it.”
“Huh? What are you talking about?”
Fenton saw the whole scheme. His uncle could have jumped into the lake above the dam and died of hypothermia, but Fenton’s arrival had made that impossible. His uncle had contrived a new plan. Freezing in the snow would be easier anyway—a little shivering, then a gentle drifting off to sleep in a place where he wanted to rest forever. There was no way to stop him. He couldn’t be forced to walk. Fenton would have to go for the helicopter sooner or later. All his uncle needed was a night alone. The frozen fish were his uncle’s goodbye to Coleman.
Fenton got up and walked to the meadow. He looked at the pink and gray and forest-green mountains standing rank on rank between himself and the edge of the world. In the thin air he heard the muted rattle of water over rocks, a faint birdcall, a bee buzzing. A breeze drifted up the canyon with a scent of wildflowers. His uncle had chosen well, it was truly a place to spend eternity. Fenton thought he understood why a man might finally give up. Even so, it scared him. This wasn’t just any man; this was Fenton’s uncle. Fenton returned to camp and sat down.
“Uncle Jack,” he said, “a lot of doctors don’t even use the word, “terminal” any more. It’s the wrong word. It’s not the cancer that decides. It’s you. You decide.”
His uncle was still gazing at the sky.
“That’s right,” he murmured. “I’ve heard that.”
“It’s never too late, Uncle Jack.”
His uncle closed his eyes.
“I think it is, Fenton. I can tell.”
Fenton sat a moment, getting himself under control.
“Okay. I’ll go for the helicopter. I’ll put everything you need right here within reach.” He started to say, “If I never see you again. . .,” but the words would not leave his throat. What came instead were the vain, comforting words people use in the attempt to convince themselves that death doesn’t really exist. If they’ll just hang on a little longer everything will be all right, they’ll turn a corner and live forever. Just in case his uncle was planning suicide he added words it would take to reassure a coroner or judge that he’d done everything in his power to frustrate his uncle’s last wishes. As well as the words it would take to convince Coleman, Aunt Francesca, and himself. When Fenton had exhausted his repertory his uncle’s eyes remained closed. There was no sign of breathing. Suddenly Fenton was seven years old again wearing his little red boxing gloves and his uncle was lying in front of him as still as death.
His uncle’s eyes opened. There was just the hint of a smile at the corners of his mouth.
“Take the fish to Coleman, Fenton. And be careful going down that trail. You can break a leg, easy.”