Beyond the River
A Novel by Michael Fillerup

Chapter 2

Great men and nations have fallen for the sake of a beautiful woman: Troy had Helen; David, Bathsheba; Samson, his Delilah; Antony, Cleopatra. In my mind this was understandable, if not wholly redeemable. A pretty face, I reasoned, pays dividends in passion and prestige. What I couldn’t understand was how someone like Nancy Von Kleinsmid did me under. I felt like Robert Cohn in The Sun Also Rises. Poor Cohn, the minute he falls in love his tennis game goes to pot. I didn’t fall in love with Nancy, but after meeting her I couldn’t catch a pass or win a race. My once graceful body ignored my simplest commands. I said, “Leap!” and instead my legs crossed themselves and sent me sprawling on the grass. I said, “Relax, wait, concentrate,” but my hands slapped crudely at the spiraling pigskin. Had I been bewitched by envious classmates? Had I contracted some rare disease? One thing was certain, it wasn’t Nancy’s beauty that blurred my concentration or turned my legs to sponge-cake when I crouched down in the starting blocks. Frankly, Nancy wasn’t much to look at.

Keith called her “The Albino Watusi.” Except for her hair, the metaphor was perfect. Tall and gangly, she was all arms, legs, and Adam’s apple, a skeleton in Salvation Army hand-me-downs two decades out-ofstyle: plain white blouses and dark wool skirts, thick as kilts, that reached below her knobby knees. White gym socks sagged around her ankles and giant saddle shoes bound size thirteen feet. While her female classmates sheathed their nubile legs in pantyhose or fishnet stockings, she left hers bare-shapeless, sexless, a little girl’s. She was aloof. If Ponderosa High had a popularity contest, she wouldn’t have garnered a single vote. Yet everyone knew Nancy Von Kleinsmid. You couldn’t miss her: the coltish clatter of her oxfords as she marched down the hall with books pressed to her chest, her bushy head bobbing above the crowd …

But she was a mystery. When she moved into our little pine tree town shortly after the Christmas holidays, rumors spread. She looked like a refugee. Maybe her father was a Nazi war criminal. The name fit, didn’t it? Keith’s explanation was more astute. “She’s a freak,” he proclaimed [5] on more than one occasion. In a way, he had a point. Her feathered mop combined blond tones and textures in such a bizarre way that with a little imagination, abstracting the bush from her head to her pointy hips, she could have passed for a Picasso rendition of an ostrich.  I met her in mid-March of my senior year. I had just been notified that if I did not raise my grade in Calculus from an F to a D, I would be ineligible for the league track finals in May. This is not to say I was your typical dumb jock. True, I was numbered among the student athletes and was even considered something of a prodigy, especially after plucking a Hail Mary pass out of the hands of four defenders to give Ponderosa High its first league title in twenty-two years. As a result, I got a fat head. My teammates said Riddell didn’t stock a helmet big enough for Jon Reeves.

But dumb? My cumulative grade point average was 3.6, including Senior Composition and Chemistry. But Calculus was another matter. I simply couldn’t listen to Mr. Gilbert, the ex-stormtrooper, ramble on about parachutes and parabolas for an hour every afternoon, not with the obliging spring weather and the River only a few miles away. Plus I was lazy. What didn’t come naturally took a back seat in my life. So that afternoon when I checked into the Student Tutoring Center I was desperate. Coach Ramirez had banned me from the track until I brought my grade up. No meets, no practices, nada. I had unwittingly secured  for myself an indefinite string of free afternoons, giving further credence to the Sunday school axiom, “God works in mysterious ways.”

I was the lone client, a relief in some ways, humiliating in others. Mrs. Larson, the grandmotherly program sponsor, directed me to a tall, gawky girl with her face buried in a book. Grinning like a lucky matchmaker, she leaned my way and whispered, as if we two were privy to some intimate secret, “That’s Nancy Von Kleinsmid. She’s a straight-A student. I’m sure she’ll be able to help you.” The introduction was unnecessary. I recognized her immediately; the tugboat shoes, the dowel-like legs . .. Who but Nancy Von K? Though my instincts screamed, “Run!” I had no choice. It was fourth-and-goal. D-Day. Do-or-die. Also, I felt sorry for her, sitting at that big deserted table, like a traveler lost in time. I took a seat and waited [6] patiently for her to explain limits and derivatives, continuity, composite functions, the precarious alchemy of numbers.

At first she continued reading, oblivious to my presence. Her book was as fat as Webster’s Unabridged. I noted the title: Finnegan’s Wake. Five minutes passed.

“Excuse me,” I said.

The book dropped, her back stiffened. Snatching the returned test paper from my hand (fifty-two was the score), she cracked open my Calculus text and, without introducing herself or asking my name, zeroed in on the topic for the day: curve sketching techniques. “Okay,” she ordered, “take out a sheet of paper and draw a grid!” Before I could open my loose-leaf binder, she was drilling me like a Marine Corps sergeant. “How do you find the relative extrema of the absolute value of four minus X squared?”

“What’s the second derivative of the function?”

“How do you use this to find concavity?”

“What are the inflection points?”

“Are these oblique or horizontal asymptotes?”

As I labored over problem one, she barked more orders. “Come on! Faster! Faster!”

Yanking the paper out from under my pencil, she scribbled out the answers and thrust it back at me. “There! Now try the next one! Quick pronto fast!” I made a feeble attempt at problem number two. “Too slow!” Her bony fist hammered the table. “Just like yesterday in the mile relay!” Surprised, I stopped my work. “You mean-”

“How could you let that blunder-butt from Las Plumas catch you from behind? And on the anchor leg!”

“That blunder-butt,” I said, squaring my shoulders, “just happens to be Harold Williams, alias Harry the Horse, who holds the Mid-Valley League record for the quarter-mile.”

“I don’t care if he holds Tricky Dick Nixon by the g-string. He caught you from behind.”

“Well, yesterday wasn’t one of my better performances.” “Better performances! I’ve seen old coots in the convalescent home [7] put on a better show than that. Reeves, you ran like you had six corn cobs up your butt!” (She enumerated each corn cob with a bony finger.)

I was stunned to silence. Other girls teased me about fumbles and mishaps on the field, but other girls had shapely thighs and Pepsodent smiles. Where did this Nancy Von Nobody get off criticizing me? Still in shock, my only counter was a meek, “How do you figure six?”

“Look at the films. You’ll see.” She slammed the textbook shut and, glaring at me with incriminating blue eyes, asked—no, accused: “Tell me, do you enjoy putting on a helmet and tromping around beating the mucous out of your fellow human beings every Friday? I mean, is this your idea of personal achievement?”

I hemmed and hawed while she pontificated on the morality of contact sports and the immorality of me playing them. And for some bizarre reason I was sufficiently intrigued to stick around for a full fifty-five minutes of verbal abuse.

There are points in time when you make split-second decisions that have lifelong consequences. I would make at least four such decisions in Nancy’s company, but this first one started the ball rolling, so to speak. Because otherwise I would have walked out of that room and never returned, leaving my fate in Calculus to my own devices and Nancy Von Kleinsmid to hers. Instead, I turned to her and said, “Let’s get something to eat!”

She shrugged and sighed condescendingly, “Oh, all right … ” Seconds later the bell rang and Nancy leaped to her feet. With one swoop she gathered up her books and mine, grabbed my wrist with her free hand, and dragged me out the door.

“Whoa!” I cried. “Where’s the fire?”

She gave my arm another tug. “Kick it in gear, Reeves, or we won’t beat the stampede!”

I looked down the hall at the mass of sweaty, urgent bodies rushing to lockers, busses, choir practice, the baseball field. The “stampede” had never bothered me before, but Nancy made it seem as if the entire student body were a converging mob.

“Reeeeeves!” she shouted, giving my arm another yank.

I shadowed her lanky body across the grassy quad to the parking lot, where she paused, hands on narrow hips, breathing deeply, the grin of [8] victory on her face as she watched the student exodus moseying along like a human traffic jam. Standing beside her, I realized how tall she truly was. I stood a shade under six-four but tilted my eyes upward to meet hers.

“Okay,” she said, glancing around, “so where’s your jalopy?”

“My jalopy?” I laughed. “Over there,” I said, pointing to the giant ruby shining in ti)e far corner of the parking lot.

Nancy shrugged. “A Ford, eh?”

“No, a Corvette Stingray.”

“Ford, Corvette—what’s the diff?”

Was she trying to rattle my cage again, or was she simply naive? I couldn’t tell. She was wearing an indifferent smirk that annoyed me, but I think I was beginning to like her. She was so unlike the drooling beauties who stroked the red enamel of my car as if it were a pet. Five feet short of the car she stopped and eyed my prize skeptically. “You know what Ralph Nader says about Corvettes?”

“Sorry, I’m not hep on consumer reports.” She shook her head. ”’Death traps.’ Real ‘death traps.'”

“More power to Ralph,” I said. “Get in.”

We drove down Terrace Road and onto the Skyway, north past the oak-shaded cemetery and the felt-green lawns of Veteran’s Memorial Park where old men in suspenders pitched horseshoes as miniskirted teenyboppers paraded by en route to the A&W. Then on past the dead daylight neon of the Silver Buckle Bar and the ominous escutcheon of the Moose Lodge; left on Star Route, past Mel’s A-frame barber shop and the buzzing machinery of Moonbeam Construction, then a long green wall of pines abruptly broken by a red desert studded with tree stumps. COMING SOON! PONDEROSA SHOPPING CENTER! read the billboard.

“All those beautiful trees,” Nancy muttered.

“It’s progress,” I said, baiting her.

“Or regress. It looks like a graveyard. All those little headstones … ” We drove a ways in silence.

“Where are we headed?”

“The Double-Eagle,” I said, noting her expression. There was no change. Either she had never heard of it (highly unlikely) or it made no [9] difference. Double-Eagle, Foster Freeze, what’s the diff? I don’t know what good spirit prompted me to choose the Double-Eagle. In retrospect, though, Nancy deserved the best because, in her mind, “the best” was no big deal. And the Double-Eagle aspired to more than hospital walls and salt and pepper table settings. The exterior resembled a splintering old shack from Gold Rush days: hitching rails and wagon wheels. A wooden Indian met you grimly at the door. Inside, you walked on sawdust past hefty tables of lacquered pine surrounded by wood-paneled walls covered with chaps, spurs, branding irons, WANTED posters, Winch esters, lariats. Suntanned students from Chico State drained pitchers of beer as Iron Butterfly and Ten Years Mter blasted from the jukebox. Fat beef patties sizzled on an open grill; smoke swirled delectably into the dim-lit rafters. I t was a status symbol to come here. But weaving through the half-naked bodies (cut-off jeans, halter tops, hirachi sandals), Nancy looked thoroughly unimpressed.

I ordered my usual junk food special: double-deluxe cheeseburger on an onion roll, large fries, and jumbo Coke. Nancy ordered a tuna salad sandwich on twelve-grain bread (“hold the mayonnaise”) and a glass of milk.

“You forgot the wheat germ and sprouts,” I said.

She waited until we were seated and then proceeded to explain the nutritional value of our respective orders, comparing caloric intake, carbohydrate and protein gram ratios, and U.S.R.D.A. vitamin surpluses. “What you have there,” she said, gesturing to my junk food tray, “is the Triple-Bypass Special!”

“Amen!” I cried, raising my burger as if for a toast. “No sprouts or sunflower seeds for this Jose! Long live the double-deluxe cheeseburger!”

“On an onion roll,” she murmured.

“Definitely an onion roll.”

Nancy sprinkled a pinch of salt on her sandwich while I gobbed extra mustard and mayonnaise on my double-beef patties.

“Easy on the salt,” I said. “It causes hemorrhoids.”

“Just steer clear of the sugar.” She aimed an accusing finger at my jumbo Coke.

[10] “You don’t eat sugar?”

“Not if 1 can avoid it.”

I was impressed but appalled. “What do you do … for fun? I mean, what is life without an occasional sugar fix?” I said it jokingly but I was serious. What did someone like Nancy Von Kleinsmid do for enjoyment? She wasn’t into sports; she had no friends, no car.

“Try honey,” she said.


She then expounded on the virtues of honey in curtailing diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, sterility, baldness, impotency … Here I grew bold and challenged her. “Excuse me, but if diet is the key to health and happiness, how come someone like Annette Plikta, who lives on cafeteria casseroles and Milk Duds, looks like Miss Universe?”

“She’d be Miss Universe if she ate right!” Case closed. But this made me wonder what this Albino Watusi would look like if she ate more than whole-wheat and honey. Several images flashed through my mind; all made me shiver.

I wolfed down my meal, while she picked at hers, nibbling like a squirrel. Every bite, every swallow, was slow, exact, disciplined. Her lips made none of the smacking sounds typical of after-school snacking. Even the crisp lettuce remained silent to the calculated incisions of her teeth.

A quarter of her sandwich remained when she dabbed her napkin to her lips and neatly folded it up for good. “Waste not, want not,” I said, pointing to her uneaten portion. “Kids are starving in Biafra.”

“Of course they are. But how would my over-eating help them?”

“I don’t follow.”

“Your body’s not a trash receptacle!” she said, gathering up our used napkins, paper cups, and plastic utensils. 1 watched as her rangy body glided towards the trash barrel with the hyperextended grace of a basketball player. My teenage brain couldn’t help evaluating her on the 1-10 scale Keith and 1 had devised our junior year. According to this criteria, only one girl at Ponderosa High earned a perfect 10: Annette Plikta, the future Miss Universe. 1 rated Nancy 1.5.

“Thanks,” she said, retaking her seat. “That was good.” She smiled-a [11] warm smile this time, genuine. Give her a 2.2. She had beautiful teeth and a nice face, with freckles lightly sprinkled across her narrow nose.

“Ready?” I asked.

“Let’s go!”

As we drove east on Star Route, Nancy sat low in the bucket seat, the window down, her eyes almost shut, the wind blowing her hair straight back in a raging Beethoven mane. Her small mouth was clamped tight, almost haughtily, her deprived nostrils sucking in the warm March air. Her eyebrows were pale etchings resisting the force of the wind. Something about the way she sat there, arms folded, eyes closed, hair blowing back, gave her the confident, self-possessed look of a movie star. Her expression said, This is nothing out of the ordinary, driving through the mountains in a red sports car with the captain of the football team. Why, she looked bored. I was beginning to feel self-conscious.

“So what does your father do?” I asked, trying to make conversation, but curious as well.

One blue eye popped open, then the other. “Sleeps,” she said.

I laughed. “Mine too. Not much, though. He’s an M.D.”

“Permanently,” she said.

“Oh … I’m sorry.”

“Somewhere,” she added.

If she was teasing, I couldn’t tell. She remained perfectly poker-faced. “How about your mother, what does she do?”


I nodded. “Cooks, sews, cleans, washes . . . ”

“No. Not that.”

“You said everything.”

“Everything but that.”

This was getting nowhere. When I asked where she was from, her eyes got big and round. “A galaxy far, far away,” she said in a quavering outerspace voice.

“Any brothers or sisters?” I asked—a last ditch try for a straight answer. “More than one, less than a dozen. Nine’s fine but ten’s the end.” She looked at me and smiled. “I’m quoting Cervantes-or Mother Goose-I can’t remember. What about you- no, don’t tell me: you’re an only child.”

[12]”How did you—”

“Pampered, egocentric … You’ve got all the symptoms.”

“And I suppose you’re the oldest?”

She cringed. “Does it show that badly?”

I mulled this over. Her face was no longer coiled to strike but had softened. She looked nice even with that rigid German jaw. Her lips were meek and reticent, a lamb’s. Try 3.4. “Not at all,” I said.

“Not at all or not at all badly?”


Her head flew back with a laugh. “Both! Reeves, you ought to be a politician!”


“Sure! You’ve got the mind and the face for it!” Her voice lowered a decibel to a tone of pseudo-seriousness. Adding a nasal twang, she mimicked perfectly Mrs. Barsumian, the Girls Vice Principal. “And just what do you plan to do with your life, Mr. Reeves?”

Thus commenced the first of many mock interviews. I played along. “Seriously? My secret ambition is to be a fireman or a cowboy or maybe a lazy degenerate beachcomber.”

“And next year, Mr. Reeves? College?”

“If I like it, yes. With a jumbo Coke, of course.”

“I understand you’ve been offered a football scholarship to Brigham Young University.”

“Yes. That higher institution of lower athletics has made me an offer. They wined and dined me—”

Wined you, Mr. Reeves? At a Mormon school?”

“Okay, milked me—milked me? That sounds … ”

“Somewhat obscene, Mr. Reeves?”

“Obscene! That’s the word!” Nancy had a way of bringing out a dormant part of my brain. Later she would take me to far more dangerous depths.

“Begging your pardon, Mr. Reeves, but do you have any earthly idea where we’re headed?”

As a matter of fact, I did. At first we were just going, driving. But partway through our little interview I had made another of those split-second decisions and turned off the main highway. We were winding [13] down the chuck-holed dirt road leading to the River. The sun was low in the west, melting like butter on the horizon. Its glow had a wavering effect on the pines, which appeared as tall dark flames reaching into the sky. A tiny flock of clouds blushed overhead. “So what about you?” I asked. “College?”

Her voice shifted back to normal. “Nope. I’m a victim of Von Kleinsmid’s First Law of Economics: no dough, no can go.”

I tried to look sympathetic, but this was not news. Most Ponderosans took a job right out of high school. College was a low-priority frill except for rich doctors’ kids. “No college. Well, maybe someday.” She shrugged. “No big deal.” But then it grew quiet in my Corvette, the only sounds the snapping of twigs and branches as we crawled down the bumpy dirt road. The silence, plus the strobic effect of the sunlight flickering through the pines, made me feel like an extra in a silent movie. This mood persisted until we were fifty yards from the final bend.

“Stop!” Nancy screamed.

I slammed on the brakes. The car screeched to a halt, heaving us forward. I winced as I smelled the burned rubber mingling with the vermilion dust cloud billowing around us like a freed genie. They were brand new radials, and I had just washed and waxed my red gem. “So where’s the accident!” I yelled. “Where’s the water buffalo I was going to hit?”

Nancy wasn’t listening. She was staring quietly across the canyon trying to dissolve the sun with her eyes. She was doing a spectacular job, too, for the only remnant now was a marmalade stain on the horizon. She waited five minutes, until the orange glow had turned flourescent pink, then motioned me on.

At the bottom we were greeted by the sound of distant thunder. We followed the noise down a narrow foot trail, flanked by waist-high ferns, to the edge of a granite cliff. A jungle of trees and plants, many of them exotic, crowded the opposite bank Directly below us the waters lay still and smooth, black satin. A sweet and sour odor rose from the sandy shore.

Several hundred feet downstream a steel trestle spanned the River. In the twilight it looked like a great metal cage with a dull polish. Just upstream the cliffs curved inward forming a giant horseshoe. Top-dead-[14] center the River squeezed through a narrow gap and plunged twenty feet straight down, crashing between a pair of boulders that angled inward like twin whales surfacing to kiss. This was the Rock. If you had hair on your chest or rocks in your head or both, you could squeeze safely between those two protruding boulders. If you leaped and lived, you were entitled to carve your initials into the trunk of a half-gone ponderosa pine rotting at the base, officially certifying your manhood or your stupidity.

Before long a squadron of bats began zig-zagging above the River. Intermittently one would dive kamikaze-style at the water, pulling out an instant before crash-landing, its leather wings fluttering frenetically as it rejoined the group.

“Do you think they ever misjudge?” Nancy asked.

“And hit the water? I don’t know. Maybe once in a while. They’re hunting for insects.”

“I know.”

“Are you afraid? Most girls think bats will get caught in their hair.”She didn’t answer. She stood there staring at the bats, not answering. “If they misjudge, it’s not often,” I said. “They’ve got radar, you know. So it’s pretty hard for them to misjudge.”

Nancy crossed her arms and watched as if she were anticipating an aerial miscue. Then she smiled. “They never miss!” she exclaimed. “Never!”

I looked around anxiously. Directly overhead stars were freckling the sky. The sickle moon was a big white smile, grinning at me no doubt. I gazed up at the towering canyon walls which appeared to be closing like immense jaws that would soon swallow moon, stars, everything.

“You’re Mormon, aren’t you?”

“Yes.” She already knew that: BYU. Football scholarship. “What are you?”

She laughed. “I’m Nancy. Nancy Von Kleinsmid.”

“I know that. But what are you?”

She smiled smugly. “Tell me about God.”

“God?” I was cautious.

“Sure! What does God look like?”

“Like a man,” I said.

[15] “Oh, does he? Then tell me, Reeves, what kind of a man? Does he have a mustache? Is he a red man? Black? White? Yellow? Or does he

change colors to fit the occasion?”

“He’s got a body. We’re created in his image—two arms, two legs, two eyes, one nose.”

I was dreading her next question: “Tell me, Reeves, I’m a woman. If we’re all created in his image … ”

“We’d better get going,” I said.

Either she didn’t hear me or didn’t want to. She gazed downstream smiling in her annoyingly omnipotent way. At least she was calling off the dogs on religion-for the time being anyway.

“Why do they call it the River?” she asked. “I mean, doesn’t it have a real name? Like Mulligan’s River or Red River or some nifty Indian name, like the Watamahogie River?”

“I don’t know. Why do you ask?”

“Just curious.”

Maybe, but her voice had that mocking edge again. I got defensive. First my running style, then my car, then my diet, then my religion, and now this! The River wasn’t exactly a secret, but it had always been special. Ever since my ninth summer when my uncle Steve hiked me down the switchbacks to catch my first rainbow trout, it had been my refuge-a little piece of paradise in the pines. Water nymphs might have bathed here, or the Polynesian beauties you see in paintings by Gauguin. I’d brought Nancy here because I thought she would appreciate it. Had I thrown my pearls to the swine?

“Why should it have a name?” I said, still smarting from our theological repartee.

The River—as if there were no others. Don’t you find that a little pretentious?”


She looked upriver, where the shawl of falling water glistened in the skimpy moonlight. “And that’s the infamous Rock?”

“The Rock, yes.”

“Have you ever jumped?”

“Sure. Lots of people have … Everyone’s jumped.”

[16]”Excuse me, 0 Great and Mighty One.” She scrutinized the Rock with her all-knowing smirk “Has anyone ever dived?”

“And lived to tell about it? Only two I know of, and one of them’s in a wheelchair.”

“Have you?”

A sudden breeze swept through the canyon, chasing off the fallen leaves and ruffling the River’s surface like the fur of a frightened animal.

“No,” I said.

“Will you?”



“Now what kind of question is that, knowing what happened to Steve Valkenburg?”

“A straightforward one, I think”

“Okay, and here’s a very straightforward answer. N—O. No.”

“Why not?”

“Don’t be stupid.”

Another breeze came up, this one a bit stiffer, shaking the surrounding oaks and elms. Their porous silhouettes wriggled like schools of black fish. It was an eerie, oriental image.

“Will you jump?” she asked.

“I already have.”

“I mean today. Now.” She smiled. “For me.”

“Are you some kind of screwball?”

“No, I’m Nancy,” she whispered. “Nancy Von Kleinsmid. You’ve done it before.”

“I’ve got my good clothes on,” I said, motioning to my polo shirt and corduroy pants.

“So? Take them off.”

“Very funny!”

“Mormon boys don’t do that?”

Something about her smile—that smirk, that challenge.

“Okay, Mizz Big Shot,” I said, “why don’t you jump!”

“I can’t swim.”

Now it was my turn to smirk “Let’s go,” I said.

I started back for the Corvette, smiling victoriously as I listened to [17]her footsteps trailing behind. Suddenly they stopped. “Listen!” she said. It took a moment, but soon I could hear the sound of another waterfall, like an echo of the first. But instead of staying constant, it was growing louder, closer.

Nancy’s eyes widened. “Come on!” she said, and grabbed my wrist with the same urgency she had shown in the high school parking lot, evading the mob. I was a good runner, a dash man, but I had trouble keeping up. Her ostrich mop was shaking like a pom-pom as her oxfords pounded the dirt. “They say,” she panted, “they say there’s a good foot of clearance . . . maybe two.”

“What?” I yelled. “What?”

She stopped at the mouth of the trestle. It protruded out of the tunnel like a piece of complex dental work. “It’s like a skeleton!” she said. “The skeleton of the tunnel!”

To me it looked like a giant booby trap. “Nancy,” I said, but she was already striding along the ladder of railroad ties, skipping every other one.

“Come on!” she hollered.

And I did. Midway she stopped and lay down lengthwise on the tracks.

“What are you doing?” I said. “Are you nuts!”

The noise grew louder, closer. Somewhere upstream a dam had burst and the angry waters were rushing down to bury us. “Hurry, Jon!” She patted the rail impatiently.

“Get up!” I yelled. “It’s not funny!”

“Come on, Jon!” The mouth of the tunnel filled with light; the steel cage trembled. “Jonathan!” she screamed. “You’re going to miss it!” Such urgency. I could see the veins gripping her throat like a skinny strangling hand. “Jon!”

I laid my body back—flat on the tracks, my head at her feet. “This is crazy!” I screamed.


Were those my bones rattling, or the wooden ties underneath me? I closed my eyes and said a quick and desperate prayer. Then: “A foot—are you sure?”

She laughed. “Just keep your head down!” She yelled something else, but her voice was smothered by the thunder.

[18] Then I did something even more stupid than lying on the tracks. I raised my head and looked back: the cyclops eye was hurtling towards us, splashing yellow light all over the steel cage. Panicking, I rolled over the rail, off the track. Eyes clenched, I hugged the metal bar, riding the earthquake tremors as the hissing, pounding monster roared past. I began counting to myself and didn’t stop until the very last echoes had faded and nothing remained but the perfect silence you might expect after a bomb has fallen and the smoke has cleared.

I opened my eyes and sat up, but suddenly 1 felt very cold. My hands were shaking. “Nancy?”

She was lying perfectly still, ghost-white in the moonlight, her hands cupped restfully on her concave belly, a mortician’s perfect pose. “Nancy!”

I scrambled over and, kneeling, lifted her head onto my lap. Her eyes opened slowly, then her mouth, although nothing came out at first. She gazed up at me dreamily, as if she were the beauty in the fairy tale awakening from her hundred years’ sleep. Then with a look of extreme sadness and disappointment, she whispered, “You missed it, Jon. You missed the train.”

1 held those words for several moments, echoing back and forth between the canyon walls which became the sides of my head. I was furious. I think I started yelling at her. Or maybe I just got up and stomped off. I forget.

She ran after me. “Hey! Wait up! I’m sorry!” she said, grabbing my arm. “I guess 1 get a little carried away sometimes.”

I spun around, fists clenched. I felt like punching her. I felt as if I were standing stark naked in front of her. “A little carried away? A little?”

“Okay, a lot carried away. A whole big bunch stupid idiotic carried away. I’m sorry, Jon. Really.” She was pleading with her hands.

“Some joke! I hope you proved whatever the hell it was you were trying to prove because what you did … Just who do you think you are?” Then I realized I was shaking my finger, just like an adult. “That was really stupid!”

“I know,” she said, looking penitently at her feet. “I’m really really really sorry.”

I thought she was being sarcastic, but then I noticed she was about [19]to cry. She was trying to hide it, but I could tell she wanted to. Then I felt rotten. “Look,” I said, “it’s getting late. Let’s get the hell out of here.”

We walked back to the Corvette side by side, almost touching. She seemed her old chatty, sassy self again, telling me about the stories she was writing and how she was going to win the Nobel Prize for literature someday. I said that was pretty ambitious.

”’Shoot for the stars!’ Robert Browning said!” and she aimed a quickfinger at the white buckshot powdering the night. Then it grew quiet again. The perpetual thunder had softened to the roar of a distant crowd. I remember the pine needles crackling underneath her giant shoes, the night sighs of the River, and the friction of her pleated skirt swishing across her skinny, sexless thighs.