by Linda Sillitoe
[p.67]He sprawled in a pine chair about ten feet from the fire roaring in the lodge fireplace and tried to figure out what he had done to his life. The boisterous flames overwhelmed his vision and hearing, letting him look hard at his situation.
Payday, perhaps, had flipped his brain in gear again, started him thinking how Robyn would need money for the mortgage, the utilities, the Mastercard, her accounts at the department stores and the neighborhood market. For more than two weeks now, he had been operating on an odd kind of automatic pilot that seemed to work separately from the usual directives in his head. Money had always made sense to him. The beauty of numbers lay in their precision, the fact that among all the possible computations, one sum, one factor, one remainder was correct. All others were wrong.
Roger’s undergraduate work was chiefly in biology. Probably Robyn had forgotten that, for he was near graduation when they met; probably she wouldn’t imagine him working as a biologist. Biology was precise, too, but not as precise as mathematics. In biology, for no fathomable reason, a cell or group of cells would decide to break their long-established patterns and grow helter skelter. That erratic potential finally put him off.
[p.68]His own recent behavior had been undeniably erratic, and, as yet, he had no explanation for himself. All he knew was that he had wound up taking the switchbacks higher and higher into the Duchesne National Forest. He felt he was fleeing for his life. The junker that Gina Mendoza dozed in, her chin on her sleeping baby’s head, was his cover. She was hunting her boyfriend, the baby’s father, who worked for the Forest Service near Flaming Gorge Dam. She had told him this that Saturday when he arrived at work. She had gone home sick the day before, and then used the office key no one had collected from her to get in on Saturday to pick up her last check from her cubbyhole. She left the key on the front desk.
Just like that, Roger had hitched a ride with her, and—stupidly, now that he thought about it—messed up his office a bit to look as if he’d been abducted. The most realistic thing he’d done was make Gina stop before leaving the city, so he could use the Citibank card (Robyn wasn’t aware of) and withdraw cash. Then they were speeding off toward Manila, a town that crowded Wyoming’s border, a half-Mormon, half-tourist town at the top of the mountains. He hadn’t seen Gina since.
Quite easily he found a job with a developer just across the Wyoming border. His boss loaned him an old truck. Today was payday, and tomorrow he was going with several new friends down the switchbacks to Vernal for dinner and a change of scene. They were talking about going on to Moab, probably for bar-hopping, which didn’t interest Roger. But he could mail a letter somewhere along the way. Of course, Robyn wouldn’t be able to write back, but at least she would know he was alive and healthy.
Healthy? His symptoms weren’t really medical unless ugly flashbacks, a sudden sense of suffocation, waking up in a sicken-[p.69]ingly cold sweat, and a conviction he should flee for his life had been written up in medical journals.
This afternoon, for instance, he had been high above the dam collecting soil samples. It was quiet, somewhat tedious work in a relentless mountain wind that forecast winter. As he scraped and dug, scraped and dug, he found a tension building relentlessly inside him exactly like what had driven him blindly from the city. Back there he would be listening to the conversation at a family party or in the lunchroom at work and experience a stifling déjà vu. Haven’t we had this conversation before? he would ask himself. Didn’t we say these same exact sentences to each other? Why are we doing this at all?
Now here, on the job site, he had another rerun of memory. This time he was alone, picturing the bedroom that was his from age six to almost nineteen, when he’d left home as a missionary. When he was six, he’d moved into a room with Boyd when their parents bought the new house. He could see that room as clearly as if he’d left it that morning, the chest of drawers with clothes spilling out the bottom four drawers (his), Boyd’s desk, neatly arranged and off-limits to Roger, Roger’s old toy chest with the wooden lid dangling sideways by a leather strap.
He jammed the shovel into a new patch of earth so hard his shoulders ached. Damn, what was it, what was wrong? Then, against the earth, he saw Boyd’s feet on the bed, bare feet, light blue around the toenails. He saw Boyd’s pantlegs, rumpled. He leaned his forehead on the shovel handle and tried to hold back what he knew was coming: Boyd’s face caught in a grimace, eyelids half open, but eyes rolled up. He heard the childish voice scream from the room, and he couldn’t understand the words. He had no idea what he had said to his parents. He knew his parents had said little, if anything, to him after they walked into that terrible bedroom.
[p.70]He had gone on sleeping in that bedroom, he realized now, all the rest of his youth. No one had ever suggested any other arrangement. After the flashback that afternoon, had he finished his work like a reasonable man? He had staggered like a maniac to the edge of an overhang—the highest crust of the world, it seemed—and screamed into the abyss below. If there were any echoes, the furious wind gusted them away, even as it froze his tears into a mask on his face.
Tonight his throat still ached from that scream. The memory played through his mind again, almost as painfully, and his body tightened despite the comfortable chair and the fire. Roger watched the flames until they burned down. Given the early bedtime the lodgekeeper observed, he doubted that more fuel would be added.
He rubbed his eyes, then pulled out his spiral notebook, thumbed to the unused middle, and began:
First of all, I’m sorry. I don’t know how to explain what’s going on with me now. I can’t explain it to myself. This isn’t your fault. I’m not having an affair. I don’t think I’m having a breakdown exactly, but a lot of old stuff is catching up with me. I just can’t face anyone yet. I’m enclosing money for expenses. Please take care of yourself and the kids.
Again, I’m sorry. Love, Roger.
He left the letter in the notebook, which he carried habitually. He must remember to find a blank envelope that wouldn’t give away his whereabouts. He wasn’t ready to go home yet. If he supported his kids, and if the police knew that no crime was committed, probably no one would hunt him. Except Robyn maybe. Or maybe not. He sighed and looked back at the fire.
[p.71]He heard male voices and glanced up to see two bikers he had noticed on the eastern trail. They brought the chill night air in with them, and their faces were ruddy and smiling. They didn’t see him, or didn’t seem to. Bantering and laughing, they turned toward the stairs that led up to the rooms. Time for Roger to head outside for the small trailer he had rented.
Gathering the will to pull himself out of the chair, he watched the bikers. One slung an arm casually over the shoulders of the other, and Roger felt his own isolation as a balm. The second biker looped his arm around his friend’s waist, and they climbed the rest of the stairs like that. Like lovers.
Roger sank back into his chair. None of his business. Maybe they were European or Australian and ways were different. But their voices were American. Maybe they were kidding—but they seemed precisely who they were—ruddy, athletic bikers … lovers. Well, it didn’t matter. It was time to go to bed.
Yet he sat, wondering at the racing of his heart, the clamor in his gut, and the alarm flashing in his brain like a signal. Finally, as he stumbled over rough ground near his trailer, the memory came, halting him in the darkness like a low-hanging limb: he and Boyd once had walked up a canyon trail like that—arms around each other—for a minute or two until Boyd stiffened and pushed him away.
Twenty or more minutes passed with Roger sitting on the step to his trailer shivering before the million low-slung stars, thinking of his brother. He could picture them all as youngsters but didn’t know if he drew from his own memory or was simply rerunning a home movie. There was Boyd, building a fire in Yellowstone Park on their first real family vacation; Barbara giving directions from the log where she sat; Caitlin threatening to push Roger into a geyser if he wouldn’t play tag; and Marly volunteering: couldn’t she play? They were so young, so thin and vital and [p.72]active. So involved with one another. Mom and Dad were over in the cabin doorway keeping one eye on Boyd’s firebuilding and reading the road map with the other by lantern light, planning the next day’s itinerary. Adults were adults and they worried about unfathomable things; only the children seemed like real people. Yet his folks had been so optimistic then.
Roger thought maybe he ought to look for a bookstore in Vernal Or Moab, wherever they stopped tomorrow. Then he thought maybe he ought to find some tapes—music might help. He winced and shook his head. Why waste the money?—none of these impulses made sense.
He sat longer. Footsteps seemed to sound all around him like ghosts playing tag in the dark. He kept glancing about for an unseen companion. The grinding in his gut told him that he didn’t want to know what he had come here to face. Nevertheless his adversary was present and ready to take him on.