The sun had just cleared the mesa to the east, spreading a thin light like gas across the treeless plateau. It was already hot. Mead had walked only an hour from the gully where he’d hidden the car, but his T-shirt and his Denver Bears baseball cap were soaked with sweat. He was still a little drunk from the day before, and now he was paying for it.
Ahead maybe a mile was the open blue-black gulf of Dominguez Canyon against the tans and soft pinks of the uplift beyond. Across the canyon, two arroyos running east and west already caught the full sun. These were Escalante and Dry Fork, which started higher in the escarpment and descended steeply toward the river. The arroyos had no water in them because the summer had been so dry, but he knew there would be water in the river which he could not see yet, and water at the spring at the Shrine of Maria Rivera. He took off his cap and wrung out the sweat and tucked his long hair back so it was not in his eyes. He should have been at work. Ramos, of course, would cover for him, but he ought to have gone in just for the sake of appearance. And he shouldn’t have taken Angie’s car. That was stealing, he supposed, if you defined stealing in a certain way, but the car had been there and he took it, though his had been there, too. It had been an afunctional synapse. He’d been dazed when everything blew up so suddenly. He was still dazed.
“When you’re in trouble,” Ramos said, “the best thing to do is drink. We’ll go to the Nugget over in Palisade.” “I don’t want to go to the Nugget.”
“We won’t talk about it,” Ramos said. “We’ll drink and not talk about anything. We’ll get shit-faced.”
“Who’s in trouble?” Mead asked.
“Exactly. We’ll get smashed, totaled, and do nothing hasty.”
It was broad daylight then, Tuesday afternoon, a work day, and Ramos had ordered pitchers of Coors as fast as they could drink them. Mead had stared out the blue-tinted window with Nugget spelled backward on it in gold letters, listening to Ramos talk about his wife Catherine, who was about to have a baby they couldn’t afford, and about how they were still going to go to Arizona in the winter. Then right on the sidewalk out front an old man had keeled over with heat stroke, waiting for the traffic light to change. They’d rushed outside and brought the old man into the bar and laid him out like a corpse on the pool table. The man’s eyes were rolling around in his head like a jackrabbit hit in the back of the neck with a stick of wood. Corky the barkeeper held one arm and Mead the other, and Ramos had given the man mouth-to-mouth. Before the doctor showed, the man was up and around, drinking a beer and shooting eight-ball.
That’s what Mead hoped for now: when he got down into Dominguez Canyon, he wanted a return from the dead.
He had met Angie just after he’d arrived in Grand Junction. He’d hooked on pounding nails with a construction crew, and with the paycheck for his first week’s blisters he’d gone into a dive called the Sidewinder where Angie was playing poker on one of the machines. As soon as he started watching her, she started winning. She liked that. He liked that she quit when she’d run up 50 dollars, and she bought him a drink.
Over the next few weeks they went to movies and to more bars, fished some on weekends down in the Gunnison River, played Softball on Sundays with the crew from his job. Angie was strong and lithe and could hit the ball better than most of the men. He liked watching her run the bases, her brown-streaked hair flying, mouth set, intent on stretching a single to a double.
When he found a trailer out by the Interstate, she’d asked whether she could share expenses. “No promises,” she said. “It’s not you-and-me yet.”
But it had seemed like you-and-me to Mead. They slept together from the first night, and after they made love, that eerie wet smell around them, she’d say, “Don’t go away. Don’t leave me.”
Love had been a marvel to him. He’d been with other women—encounters that had lasted a few days, maybe a night. He’d wake up afterward and stumble out of the rented room wherever it was—Portland or Cheyenne—without saying goodbye. He never had that feeling with Angie. Every morning he’d wake up and was startled to find himself in the bathroom mirror, hair skewed, eyes soft with sleep. They went through month after month, and he never wanted to leave. He loved her. That was all. He put new brakes into her VW and a clutch scavenged from a junkyard. He lent her money for the dentist. They bought a stereo together. It was all perfect, until Jolene shot Trinity.
Where he was now up on the plateau was high desert. The mesquite and bleached grama grass and sage were flora of little rain. Day after day the heat had come out of Utah, moving against nothing until it reached the mountains and turned back on itself into the plateau. It was a land no one seemed to own. The fences he came to were empty of barbed wire. Once he encountered a decayed deer stripped clean by vultures and ants, and another time he found a few sticks of wood from an old wagon.
His left ankle was tender, and to ease the stiffness he stretched his foot sideways and back and forth as much as he could in his boot. Each time it hurt he was reminded how stupid he had been to break his leg in the first place, how he should have known right then about his own ignorance. But it didn’t help to think of that now. He slapped the dust from his jeans and shouldered his heavy pack. Then he picked up his aluminum fly rod case he used as a walking stick and started down the gentle slope toward the canyon.
It would have been cooler up in the aspens and spruce on the mesa, which was where he’d told Ramos he was going. And the fishing might be better in the high lakes. But he’d wanted to go where he knew there would be no one else.
“I’ll go up to the lakes with you, man,” Ramos had said, gazing at him slit-eyed over the pitcher of beer. “Why not?”
“Because Catherine’s about to have the baby.”
“I’ll worry about you.”
Mead had shaken his head. “I’m all right,” he said. “I’m fine. Look, not a scratch.”
“Right. I see.”
“I’m the one Jolene should have shot,” Mead said. “Not Trinity.”
“You? You didn’t do nothing, man.”
Mead nodded. “That’s it. I didn’t do nothing.”
“He went away, Mead. That’s all I can tell you. Your father went away.” His mother sat on the bed, and the weight of her body pressed the bed to an unnatural shape so he rolled toward her hip. Her soft hand held his, and her voice was calm in the dark. “Where?” he asked. “I don’t know where,” she said. She rubbed his back, and he felt her hand slide across his skin like a breeze. “If you knew where he was, would you make him come back?” he asked. But she didn’t answer. She sang to him a lullaby “Outside your window, rain is pouring down. . . .” singing each word more and more slowly until she thought he was asleep. But he was not asleep, and when she stood up and took her weight away, it was as if he were springing upward through the air.
He had grown up in Portland, Oregon. His father had worked for the railroad, and he was the best trout fisherman Mead had ever seen. Sometimes he took Mead on the railcar inspecting tracks, and they’d get into the back country rivers where there weren’t any roads, and his father would get the look on his face that the rivers there were heaven on earth. He’d stop the railcar and fish for ten minutes at a time, and at every spot there was a lesson.
“This way, Mead,” his father would say. “Don’t force it. Just let your arm swing smoothly and naturally.”
Mead would try it more smoothly.
“Shit, boy, were you born dumb? The secret is to let the weight of your body go forward with the cast. Easy, easy. When you try too hard it ruins the rhythm. Look, now, the body should flow.”
Mead would try again, and his father would yell at him again, until the lesson sifted in little by little, along with the hatred of fishing and the fear.
His ankle hurt more on the downslope when the whole weight of his body and his pack was restrained on the ankles and knees and thighs. The break had been a bad one, a shattered fibula, put back together with pins, as well as the broken ankle. He’d been in a leg cast for a month and then through physical therapy all summer.
He wished he’d broken the leg in some intelligent way, if there were such a thing, like skiing or doing a Class VII climb, but there was no sense lying to himself. Angie had been the catalyst, but he could blame only himself in the end. He’d been in the bar after a softball game, watching the Trail Blazers in the playoffs, and as usual Trinity was throwing out crap about the Denver Nuggets and telling his jokes to whatever woman would listen. He was like a dog on Jolene’s leash, and when he went too far Jolene would jerk him back. Mead was a Trail Blazer fan, and he didn’t like Trinity’s making jokes to Angie.
Even then he would have forgotten it afterward if Angie hadn’t said anything. He’d reeled back toward the truck after the game (the Blazers had lost), feeling, all in all, not too bad, leaning on Angie’s arm. The beer made him expansive, and the moonlight illuminated the stark shale cliffs above town. Somehow he’d wanted to impress her.
“Did you know I was a great climber?” he asked.
“I knew you climbed ladders,” she said.
“No, mountains. I could climb those cliffs.” He pointed toward the block of shale that towered bright as a sail into the sky.
“Sure you could,” Angie said, “and I built London Bridge.”
“I could do it without ropes,” he said. “With fingers and toes.” He missed the hard “g” in fingers.
Her laugh sounded tinny, disbelieving. If she’d believed him, he wouldn’t have been so foolish. But he’d got it in his mind to prove himself. He’d run ahead up the street to the old mercantile building, which was made of stone.
“Mead, what are you doing?”
He took hold of the stone and began to climb, and by the time Angie reached him, he was eight feet above the side-walk, holding on like a spider in the chinks.
“Come on, Mead, you’ll hurt yourself.”
He had scrabbled higher, knees pressed against the wall, the edges of his sneakers digging inward.
“I believe you,” she said.
But he knew she didn’t. He felt the liquid ice of the street lamp wash over him, and his own shadow move over the stone. He had never been stronger.
“Mead, don’t. Come on down. Where do you think you’re going?”
He didn’t know where he was going, that was true, but he had never felt more in control. He pulled his body up over the stone, found footholds, felt all his muscles firing in perfect sequence. Up and up, and then he fell.
Mead liked the rim of the canyon. The trail sloped from the plateau through junipers and pinons, then zigzagged down the wall in steep pitches. The Indians had traced and retraced the path, millions of steps up and down, wearing the sandstone underfoot. They’d hunted deer and antelope on the mesa, foraged pinon nuts on the slopes, and sheltered themselves in winter in the gorge.
He limped down to an outcropping of sandstone where the breeze moved through the heat like a voice, ebbing and flowing in the trees. He rested there a minute, measuring the sun’s angle against the far wall. It scattered through the trees, riffled the wall with light and color and shadow.
Once he and Ramos had taken the direct route, roping off in the pinons and rappelling, their bodies canted out into space. Discipline: that’s what Ramos said it took to look so far down into nothing. Mead had thought what it took was love.
He continued down four or five more switchbacks and into the shadow of the wall. There he rested again, relieved to get the weight of his pack off his back. He had brought enough for two or three days, maybe more. He drank from his canteen. The sunline now fell to the river, glistened from the smooth water. A miners’ abandoned railroad bed wound along the river bed, partly in sun, partly in shadow, and from a distance the jumble of boulders fallen from above looked like train cars lined up and moving. Where the canyon narrowed, the train rounded a slight curve and headed upstream into the sunlight.
Angie’s yellow VW was parked in front of the trailer when he’d got back from the Nugget. He hadn’t expected her to be there, and he was surprised. He’d stood outside for a minute, urinating, his head tilted back wildly against the stars. Ramos had offered a place to stay, but he was glad he hadn’t taken it. The stars wavered, as if they were floating in the air just a few feet above his head. What did you do when the woman you loved cheated on you? He didn’t know.
He finished up, zipped his jeans, staggered. Then, before he went in, he opened the hood of the VW and pulled the wires from the distributor so Angie couldn’t leave.
He knocked and went in. Angie didn’t look at him. She was at the kitchen sink eating a sandwich, and she spoke to his reflection in the window above the sink. “You could give me some privacy,” she said.
“It’s my place.”
“I pay half the rent.”
He stayed by the front door, and the room seemed to swell with the heat. Neither of them saying anything.
Then Mead said, “So what is it, Angie?”
“What is what?” She turned around and faced him.
He didn’t know what. It was impossible for him to tell. “You were waiting for something all along,” he said. “I don’t know what—night to fall, maybe.”
“Night has fallen,” she said, “in case you hadn’t looked.”
He nodded, feeling the weight of the beer he’d drunk. “So what are you thinking of now?”
“I forgive you,” he said.
“You forgive me. That’s funny, Mead.” She smiled something that wasn’t a smile. “Don’t you think it’s a little late?”
“No.” He could see behind her the lights of the semitrailer trucks moving like ghosts along the highway.
“Why didn’t you ever talk to me?” she asked. “Why didn’t you ever tell me anything?”
Her voice sounded as if she were talking more to herself than to Mead.
“I talked.” He stared at her across the room, afraid to go closer.
“What are you looking at?” she asked.
“Well, don’t look at me.”
He continued to look at her, though, trying to think through the haze of the beer, back to all the silences. He couldn’t remember. Maybe it was true that he hadn’t talked. He’d said more about the present than he’d ever said about the past, and the past was where he had come from, maybe was where he still was. He felt dizzy from trying to think about it, and he went down the hallway to his bedroom.
He lay on the bed with his clothes on, still trying to figure things out, but feeling the room spin instead. He listened to Angie moving around in the living room, gathering her things. She wouldn’t come into the bedroom. He knew that. She’d have to come back later.
Then he didn’t hear anything until the morning.
Heat stayed in the sandstone long after the sun was past the rim of the canyon. His sweat had stained the rock red. In the afternoon, clouds had risen in the sky like dust, thin, billowing mountains of hazy brown and white. Hot clouds. He lay naked on the rock, now and then sipping whiskey from a flask he had cooled in the river.
The cliff defined the sky as two elongated vees, upriver and down, a web of space, a cloudy convex eye with jagged edges. There was a stillness he had not known before, as if the heat of the day obliterated sound altogether. Even the river, which was low, slid silently over the smooth bottom.
It was too hot to sleep soundly, so he dozed. Then his leg tightened up. He got up and filled his canteen at the spring, said a blessing, though he did not believe in Maria Rivera’s ghost. It was true the water ran pure from the ground, colder than the river, and he was glad to drink it. But there were no ghosts.
The legend, like other stories, arose from truth. Dominguez and Escalante, two padres from Santa Fe, had led a band of men, together with Maria Rivera, north and westward from Santa Fe in an attempt to find a passage to California. They had followed river courses in the San Juans, crossed the mountains, and then dropped down along creek-beds and ravines to the lower plateau. Some of the men had died of exposure and others from disease, and by August they had encountered the Utes. The Utes engaged them in minor skirmishes and eventually pushed them into the canyon, where they were trapped. The Spaniards couldn’t climb the sheer cliffs, and upriver the Indians blocked their retreat. Downriver the current quickened and dropped steeply into the narrow gorge.
One evening during the siege Maria Rivera had knelt at the spring to drink. With her hands cupped, holding water, she was struck in the neck by an arrow. It was said she stood and called forgiveness to the Indian hiding in the rocks, as if the arrow itself had taught her the Indian’s language. Then before their eyes, she was transformed into a deer and bounded into the river where she was swept downstream in the current.
The Indians were terrified, but Dominguez wrote of it as the miracle that saved them. The Indians made their peace and led the Spaniards from the canyon and as far south as the Uncompahgre.
In the heat, though, even the spring had diminished. The leaves of the willows had yellowed, and the grass which grew along the trickle of water had withered. Mead did knee bends and jumping jacks to loosen his ankle and his leg. Hands above the head, legs outstretched. Ten, 15, 20. Perspiration rose quickly, and he stopped out of breath, with sweat pouring from his body.
A rock rolling on the scree alerted him to a doe and two fawns across the river. They were heading down the slope from Dry Fork, coming to drink. The fawns browsed the shreds of dry grass on the hillside, while the doe tested the air.
The fawns looked weak, barely able to edge downhill on their rickety legs. There were no lies in the canyon. There were no lies and no truths, Mead thought, only consequences. The fawns could not gain much from the grass, and later they would starve or not starve, depending on the weather. That was how the Indians had lived here, too. They had foraged and hunted for what there was in seasons of plenty, and they died in seasons of need.
He drank again from the spring and then waded into the river. The water was cooler than the air, and he sank into a deep pool where the current was slow. He went under and held his breath, turning like a pebble along the bottom. He stayed under a long time, wondering whether he could stay under forever. Then his leg snagged on a boulder, and a streak of fast pain ran through his body. He pushed upward with his good leg, broke into the air, and screamed.
When dusk squeezed down, he collected wood for the fire. He wrapped two potatoes in tin foil and fetched water from the spring in a covered pot. In minutes, it seemed, darkness expanded around him. The high cirrus sifted to pink and gray—no rain there. The shadow of the west rim rose against the eastern wall like a smoky red curtain lifted from the stone.
When the canyon was in shadow, he spilled the fly rod from its case, assembled it, and fastened on the reel. He threaded the green line through the eyelets of the rod, then held the line taut as he put on a leader and a black gnat. He slipped a packet of flies into his back pocket, together with a scrap of leader, and waded barefoot into the river.
He let the fly out as softly as mist would fall, then kneaded the line back into his left hand, watching the gnat skim along the edge of the pool. When it caught the main current, he let it ride a few seconds, then flicked it backwards into the air, whipped the line twice over his head, and let the line float outward again over the water.
It was a river seldom fished, and in five minutes he had two fourteeners for supper. He cleaned the trout and wrapped them separately in foil and positioned them in the coals. Then he sat back with the whiskey, giving passing thought to tomorrow when there would be no whiskey left.
A coyote cried from the cliff, a distant forlorn wail that echoed back from the canyon wall. Another answered the first from higher up on the rim—ghosts of Indians, Mead thought, smiling, who had drunk from the spring.
He drifted in the darkness for a long time, staring at the slit-eye of space. Heat healed. The rock under him was still warm, and he soaked the heat into his body. The sun still swarmed in his arms and legs.
He had no idea what time it was when he finished the whiskey. He kept seeing flashes of Jolene, five-feet-two and 100 pounds, waiting for Trinity with a .22 across her knees. When he walked into the house, God, Son, and the Holy Ghost, with the quicksilver smile, she had tried to shoot his balls off. One shot in the leg. One shot and bleeding. One shot that changed everything once and for all.
Mead woke, dazed, in the dark. The night animals were moving around him. The coyotes were silent, but he could hear the deer picking their way across the rocky scree.
Angie was where? She was a physical presence in the blood, like a smell he could not wash off his body—clove, smoke. What had she not got from him that she’d needed? Words? No, no. He shook his head at that. There wouldn’t have been enough words for her. She wanted more.
He supposed he should have seen it coming, but even if he had, what would he have done? He would have waited, waited. That was his habit. He would have waited the way he used to wait in the darkness for his father to come in and kiss him good night.
You can’t change people, Mead. If he came back, he’d leave again. That’s the way the world is. He wouldn’t be different. Of course you love him. But it’s better now, too, don’t you see? We won’t wonder about him anymore. The heart can mend if you let it.
He felt the train. He felt it first in the trembling of the earth before he heard it. It was a tiny vibration from the ground into his body, from the stone into his aching leg. The earth shook, and then he heard the distant whine, almost indistinguishable from the hiss of the river, coming from the gorge, as if from darkness itself.
He sat up on the rock. The fire had died away and a cool breeze flowed down the canyon. There were no stars. The rhythm of the train was like his own quickening heart, gathering speed. The staccato pulse of wheels, clickety, clickety. The white ball of the headlight rounded the bend in the gorge, sprayed out across the red cliff-wall its harsh light. Shadows scattered everywhere. The whistle blew and the light blinded his eyes, came straight at him, and the din of the engine drove him down against the stone where he lay curled into himself, shielding his head with his arms and his body.