[p.116]It was after midnight when he got to the Motel 6 in Pocatello. Catherine had asked him not to stay in a motel, saying they couldn’t afford it, but he was exhausted, and he didn’t want to bother Aunt Norma in the middle of the night. And he wanted to be alone.
A single room was $16.95. Did he want TV? Sure. That was one dollar; tax brought the total close to twenty dollars. Catherine could go ahead and complain about that if she wanted to.
The room was bare, no phone, no stationery, no glasses wrapped in plastic—just a bed, table, chair, and TV. And a Gideons Bible.
He put the key in the TV and turned on the Letterman show.
Then he flipped open the Bible: “And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse. THE END OF THE PROPHETS.”
Malachi 4:6, the last verse in the Old Testament. No one who knew Rose well could read that verse without thinking of [p.117]her. She loved the last chapter of Malachi. Now Ryan couldn’t remember exactly why.
He wondered if Rose lived in Idaho Falls. For all he knew, she lived in the Australian outback. It was possible that she was dead. Who would have told him?
He took off his shirt and fell onto the bed. He was tired, maybe too tired to sleep. He wanted to be in Idaho Falls by nine. Which meant he’d have to be up by seven. He’d never make it.
A stroke could paralyze you, or worse. That couldn’t happen to Neal.
Catherine had probably been asleep a couple of hours by now. He tried to remember the last time they had been to a motel and if they had made love. It was perfectly possible that they had walked into the room with their arms around each other, locked the door behind them, and turned on the shower, Catherine wanting the water hot. It was also perfectly possible that she had been sitting on the bed mad as he lugged in the suitcases, turning away from him when he turned off the light.
He couldn’t remember what had happened.
He swung to the edge of the bed, took off his shoes and pants, and lay back down again. When you were young you believed you would fall in love with a beautiful, intelligent woman also in love with you, and that loneliness would end. Marriage—the cure for loneliness and sexual frustration. That’s what you believed when you were young.
Earlier, as he reached the city limits, he passed a sign that read POCATELLO, HOME OF IDAHO STATE UNIVERSITY. He had almost taken the campus exit. But a drive past the dorm would only leave him empty.
ISU, where he had fallen in love with a beautiful, intelligent woman who would now badger him about the twenty bucks he had just spent.
He remembered watching her play softball one day. She [p.118]was wearing a sweatshirt and jeans, her hair stuffed under a Cardinals baseball cap.
“You look great,” he told her.
“Sure I do.”
“I’m not kidding. But I think you forgot your earrings.”
“Oh, thanks.” She reached up to the gold earrings looped through pierced ears, smiling as she took them off, and he felt his pulse jump.
“Take care of these for me during the game, okay?”
A curl of brown hair fell out from the cap and hung loose around her ear. She handed him the earrings and kissed him.
He started to put his arm around her.
“No, the girls are waiting for me.”
“Okay, but you really do look great.”
“I’ll wear this on our next date then.”
“Fine with me.”
He wanted to remember how exciting it had been to fall in love with Catherine. He wanted to remember holding her hand and kissing her for the first time.
Miles believed falling out of love was nearly inevitable once you were married for several years. Ryan hoped he was wrong.
He found Aunt Norma in the intensive care waiting room, asleep on the couch.
He touched her arm. “Aunt Norma.”
She woke with a start, not recognizing him.
“It’s Ryan,” he said.
“Oh, Ryan.” Her eyes clouded with tears, and she reached for his hand. ‘‘I’m so glad you came.”
“How is Uncle Neal?”
She shook her head. “Not good.”
“I got here as soon as I could.”
“I’m so glad you came. Glenda is flying in this afternoon.”
“I wish my daughters weren’t thousands of miles away, at a time like this—” her crying cut her short. He nodded and squeezed her hand.
“I know I shouldn’t complain. They married fine men in the temple, they’re active in the church, raising fine families … ”
She wiped her eyes with an embroidered handkerchief, the kind of thing he remembered her making when he was a kid. Sitting in that overstuffed chair in the corner, scissors and thread on the table next to her (along with her Book of Mormon), she embroidered handkerchiefs, place mats, doilies, and things Ryan didn’t know the names for, giving most of them away.
“I wasn’t sure if they would let me see him,” said Ryan. “The nurse said immediate family only.”
“Well, we’ll make sure you see him.”
Aunt Norma was older than Uncle Neal; she was seventy or seventy-one. She would have been in her early forties when Clark and Neal worked on the dam. Ryan tried to remember her as a much younger, much slimmer woman, but the only image he could see was the one in front of him.
She had her composure now. “We’ll just have to pray for the best,” she said. “I tried to warn him, but he never thought his drinking and smoking would catch up with him.”
Norma sitting in her chair in the corner, reading her scriptures while Neal sat in the kitchen opening his third or fourth bottle of Lucky. It must have been hard.
Once, after being lectured by Norma for drinking, Neal muttered to Ryan, “I should have married a woman who liked to fish and drink beer.”
Wearing gowns and masks, he and Norma went in to see Neal. Ryan stared at the old, dying man in the bed, who bore [p.120]only a slight resemblance to Uncle Neal. His face was hollow, his skin an eerie white, his breathing heavy and unnatural.
A nurse with a chart examined the computerized monitors.
Norma put her hand on Neal’s forehead. “I know it’s a shock to see him like this,” she said, “especially when you haven’t seen him for a while.”
Ryan couldn’t think of anything to say.
She stroked Neal’s hair.
“We all know we’re mortal,” she said, “that our time on earth is short. But it’s still a shock.”
Neal was motionless, expressionless, making you believe he was already gone, his breathing manufactured by the computers.
Someone would have to write documentation for these computers; someone would have to paste up the copy, with operating instructions, power requirements, software, and everything else. And death. There had to be a paragraph somewhere telling the nurse or doctor what to do with the computer if the patient died.
Norma held Neal’s limp hand. “Neal,” she whispered, “Ryan is here. He just came in from Salt Lake City. Don’t worry about trying to talk to him. There will be time for that later. Glenda will be in this afternoon. Ryan said he would take me to the airport to meet her at 1:30.”
She motioned for Ryan to move closer. “Ryan wants to say hello to you, Neal.”
He put his hand on Neal’s arm. It felt bony and lifeless.
“Hello Uncle Neal … sorry to see you … in the hospital. I’m sure you’ll be doing fine soon.”
He watched Neal’s face for some kind of response but saw none.
“The kids are doing fine. I’m anxious to get them up here so you can see them. Catherine is fine too. She sends her love.”
[p.121]Norma patted Neal’s hand. “You get some rest now, Dear. We’ll just be in the waiting room.”
When they were taking off the gowns she asked if he had had any breakfast.
“Not yet, but that’s okay.”
“Why don’t you get yourself some breakfast. You need to keep your strength up.”
“Would you like to come with me, Aunt Norma?”
“Oh, no, I’ll be fine here. Get yourself a good breakfast.”
“I won’t be long.”
A hospital coffee shop was no place for breakfast. He could never muster an appetite in a hospital. He walked out to the car. It was only five minutes to the North Highway Cafe.
Neal always called it “the North Highway.” It was his favorite place to eat.
It was just as busy as ever. He sat at the counter because the booths were all taken. The wallpaper was new, or at least different. He hadn’t been here for at least fifteen years.
He looked around for a familiar face but saw none, even though the crowd itself was familiar—the kind of blue-collar people Neal loved being with: truck drivers, farmers, clerks. He didn’t recognize any of the waitresses. There had been a time when two or three of them knew him by name, a time when he couldn’t come in without running into someone he knew. Now all these people knew each other, and he was the stranger at the counter.
“What can I get you?” asked the woman behind the counter.
“Number three with scrambled eggs, and coffee.” The kind of breakfast Neal would have appreciated: eggs, link sausage, hash browns, toast, orange juice, and coffee.
His mother had loved the North Highway, ordering chicken or breaded veal cutlets, his dad always getting a steak.
There had been no lingering in a hospital for his mother, [p.122]no suffering. Gone at forty-seven from a heart attack. Fine one minute, gone the next. She had died how many years ago? Twenty-one.
Four ladies in a booth behind him were discussing the evils of smoking.
“He smoked two packs a day till the day he died,” said one of them.
The food helped him shake off his tiredness. He couldn’t afford being tired. A little later he would take Aunt Norma to the airport, spend some time talking to Glenda, and try to leave in time to reach Salt Lake by nine or ten. He had to be to work on time in the morning. He was never going to be late again. That would be too pleasurable for Ross, justifying him in his decision.
“I used to hide the cigarettes. He’d look until he couldn’t stand it any more. Then down to the 7-11 for another carton.”
Back in the fifties, when he came here with his folks, he loved to order chili. They always brought a long tray of unwrapped saltines. Now they probably gave you a couple of cellophane packages with a cracker or two in each one.
“It was pathetic. Up there in the hospital with an oxygen tank, and he’s sneaking cigarettes.”
Neal always finished his meal with a cup of coffee and a smoke. He’d take that crumpled pack of Camels from his shirt pocket, pull out one cigarette, and light it with a match. Lighters are a nuisance—I can’t stand packing one around.
“It’s hard to quit. I tried for ten years before I finally did it.”
The waitress asked if he wanted more coffee. He told her no thanks. He walked over to pay the bill.
“They suffer terribly with that emphysema.”
He drove along the river on his way back, parking by the temple, where Rose had been married and Aunt Norma should have been married.
[p.123]He still couldn’t believe they had put an Angel Moroni on top of the temple. What had made them do a thing like that? It had been so majestic the way it was. Now it had lost its uniqueness. They made it into a generic temple.
Rose wouldn’t like the angel either. He walked to the grass at the edge of the river and looked out across the water, able to see the water tower, Broadway bridge, the falls, the Westbank Motel, and the spot where he and Rose always parked. This was the river his dad loved—the Snake.
Following the river upstream would take you to Ririe, Swan Valley, and Palisades. Then the dam and the reservoir and Alpine. The river went west from Alpine, then north, to Jackson, Moose, Moran, and finally to its origin, just inside Yellowstone.
It would be something to load a canoe with supplies and float the Snake from Yellowstone all the way to the Columbia River, then to the Pacific Ocean.
Uncle Neal would die soon, then Aunt Norma, then his own father. He himself would be in his fifties in just a little over ten years. Catherine, Miles, Rose, his own children. They would all die. And the river would still be here.
He took Aunt Norma to the airport to meet Glenda, then back to the hospital. He tried to call Catherine when they got back to Menan, but the line was busy. Aunt Norma insisted that he stay for dinner. It was seven when he got away.
“Are you sure you won’t stay for the night?” she asked.
“No, I’ll be fine, Aunt Norma.”
“Thanks so much for coming,” she said, hugging him.
He felt restless, disoriented, and toyed with the idea of driving to Alpine. In that way, at least, he was like his father; he belonged in Wyoming, near the Snake River, living life with enthusiasm instead of resignation.
But instead of driving north toward the reservoir, he had to drive south. Toward Ross. Funny that he had gone virtually [p.124]the entire day without thinking about his stupid job. Riding the rapids south of Jackson was called fantasy. Reality was called the Instructor’s Utilization Handbook and the Technician’s Maintenance Guide. It was called a note in your box from Ross telling you he needed to see thumbnails on a flowchart. A very civil note, of course.
He drove into Idaho Falls, past the temple and the hospital, to the Westbank. He walked through the coffee shop, where he and Rose used to eat together, and into the lounge. He said hello to the young, beautiful cocktail waitress and ordered himself a strong one.
Aunt Norma was a remarkable woman. She had lived the Christian requirement without reservation, forgiving Uncle Neal completely.
“I don’t know if Norma will ever forgive me,” Neal said one night in a West Yellowstone bar.
“Forgive you for what? Not joining the church?”
“Oh, no, not that. She forgave me for that a long time ago. Not that.”
They kept on drinking, Neal lapsing into talk about Yellowstone Park and what a pity it was they had made it a tourist attraction and brought in the Department of the Interior and how he would never set foot in the place again. Then he talked of Alpine, Palisades, and finally Norma again.
“I wouldn’t blame her if she didn’t forgive me.”
“And I wouldn’t blame you either, Ryan.”
“I don’t understand.”
Neal poured them both a drink. “Well,” he said, “I suppose I should confess now that April’s been gone for two years and Clark has packed up and moved to Florida. Even though it happened a long time ago.”
“It was April. I fell in love with her.”
[p.125]Holding the glass in his hand, Ryan didn’t move, didn’t speak, didn’t blink.
“Sorry,” said Neal. “There’s no way to lead into somethin’ like that. We didn’t do anything about it.”
He poured himself another drink. “Nothing happened.
April and I never even talked about it. But we fell in love.”
“Did Dad know?”
“He knew. He never mentioned it, but he knew. Norma and I weren’t in love any more. But she was religious, and she took the scriptures seriously. She wouldn’t divorce for anything short of adultery. I hadn’t done that so she wasn’t about to divorce me. And me—I didn’t want to lose the girls.”
He took another drink.
“It was that summer your dad took that job in—oh, Casper, I think it was. He was just coming home on weekends.”
“I remember that.”
“Yeah, I suppose you do. Well, I stopped by occasionally to check on you and your mother. And April—she was the kind of woman I should have fallen in love with. And married. But I didn’t. Well, you were asleep one night, and I had just come over after going a few rounds with Norma. April and I were sitting in the kitchen together, and she was giving me free advice on my marital problems. You know how she could be.”
He put his drink down. “Whoa, I better … better slow down a little here.”
He seemed to lose his thought, then regain it.
“We were sitting in the kitchen, and she stopped with the free advice and just stared at me. I thought she was going to fall into my arms. Who knows what would have happened if she had? Well, I know what would have happened. She saved two marriages in that instant. After that, she never allowed the two of us to be alone together. But I was in love with her till the day she died.”
[p.126]The beautiful cocktail waitress asked if Ryan would like another. He told her yes. He rolled the Scotch around in his mouth. Catherine had never appreciated the value of a good drink. She appreciated it about as much as Rose did.
“Are you from out of town?” the girl asked him.
“Yes, Salt Lake City.”
“No kidding? I used to live there.”
“Oh yeah? Where?”
She talked to him for a few minutes, making him believe there must be something appealing about him, despite the extra thirty pounds he was carrying near his belt and the hair on the crown of his head that was getting thin in a hurry. He watched her go to another table. He knew what would happen if a woman like that fell into his arms.
He was working on his third drink when he realized he still hadn’t called Catherine.