Fifteen

[p.203]He gazed out across the stretch of sagebrush and tried to remember that day a world ago when he and Ron had first hiked out to the Rocks. Ten feet in front of them a jack rabbit had bolted from a clump of shrub and zig-zagged out across the flat, spurred on by a hail of shouts. Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. The gully leading to the Rocks was a country, and boyhood had had nothing to do with manhood.

He walked toward the Rocks, or what should have been the Rocks, the smell of sagebrush taking him back, and he recognized the trail and the dry canal bed, which made him remember the raft.

“Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer,” Ron had said as they pushed off from the bank. They had floated the twenty yards to the Rocks and imagined they were navigating the Mississippi. Then Ron jumped in after a water snake.

Ron had been dead for twenty years, passing a truck at eighty miles an hour as a bus rounded the bend three hundred yards away. They had buried him in Rose Hill Cemetery.

The car they scraped off the Montana highway probably lay in some obscure junk yard, its significance lost on the kids who prowled there.

He walked farther into the gully, and the school and freeway both disappeared. When you were a kid you thought the Rocks went on forever, that the field on the other side was just a gap between this pile of rocks and the next, piles of rocks everywhere, grazed with canals and dusty hills where you could play as long as you wanted. It didn’t occur to you that the world was dull and life joyless for so many people.

He had been to the top of the Rocks a million times, skinning his hands or knees but not minding. You believed you were at the top of the world, able to see what God saw. Behind you was the school and beyond that the civilized world. To your left, Hansen’s bird farm—pheasants, peacocks, blue jays; then Old Man Tucker’s place—work horses, quarter horses, Shetland ponies. From the top of the Rocks you could see the canal winding through a grain field, and below you the “caves,” that you always descended in fright, convinced you would be lost forever if the rocks above you shifted.

On the other side of the tracks you would see an occasional hobo camp, two or three phantoms next to a fire. Once, with the sun setting, a solitary tramp trudged along the tracks, a bedroll over his shoulder and a volley of jeers rising from the Rocks. The kids tried for a reaction, but the wanderer didn’t break his pace and didn’t turn to look at them. Ryan had felt his loneliness. Then darkness had fallen.

He got to the deepest part of the gully and thought for a moment that he had latched onto an image of what the Rocks had really been like, but the image vanished just as quickly. He walked to higher ground.

You lost your orientation just when you needed it most:  there was a fence where there hadn’t been, there was a freeway where there had been sagebrush, and the Rocks themselves were [p.205]gone. You couldn’t get your bearings by looking around—several buildings had taken the spots of hobo camps and fields, Old Man Tucker’s place was gone, and the road that led to it also gone.

This was your boyhood, a part of your past you wanted to stay intact. Instead, someone cut it up and auctioned it off, leaving enough of it to make you yearn for the rest.

He jumped as a jack rabbit darted past him. Then he smiled.  Maybe the past wasn’t entirely lost. The animal’s speed thrilled him the way it always had. A jack rabbit didn’t run and it didn’t hop—it moved like it had been fired from a gun.

He had told Catherine about the Rocks years ago, but he didn’t think she had ever seen them. It was too bad Allison and Tyler didn’t have a place like this to play. But if they did, he would worry about them getting hurt. “Be careful over at those Rocks,” his mother always said, and Clark would tell her the boy would be fine.

He walked back along the trail to the fence, parted the barbed wire, and stepped onto the school ground. Most of the playground equipment was new, or relatively new, but he recognized a slide and a set of monkey bars. He stood next to the slide and tried to remember climbing the ladder. How much could you remember from second or third grade? You remembered fragments—moments climbing the Rocks, or playing baseball, or reading in the classroom. But you remembered nothing before or after—as if someone had cut several random sections from a roll of film and thrown the rest away.

He crossed a parking lot that had not existed in the early 50s. The sign read “FACULTY AND STAFF PARKING.”  Someone had scrawled in “and kids” at the bottom.

There had not been any trees in front of the school thirty years ago. Now there were several evergreens twenty feet high.  How long did it take to grow a tree like that?

Walking to the car, he saw that the old bird cages on the [p.206]Hansen place were still standing, barely. A large sign read “TEN ACRES FOR SALE, TRADE, OR LEASE. CALL JARAD

GUNTHER AT 801-943-7222.” It was a Salt Lake number, some developer anxious to sell the land. In another year a manufacturing plant might stand next to the school, the Rocks gone forever.

He drove to a florist shop on First Street and bought some flowers, thirteen miniature coral roses and a bouquet of carnations. Then he drove to Rose Hill Cemetery.

His mother’s grave was half-way into the cemetery, beneath a giant tree.

APRIL REECE MASTERSON
1916-1963

He set the carnations next to the headstone. He was glad she was buried here because she loved Idaho Falls. It wasn’t a large city, but it had a library. It had a J. C. Penney’s and a Sears and a Bon Marche. It had three theatres and a television station, two hospitals and a beautiful Mormon temple on the banks of the Snake River. She loved to go for drives along the river, or look at the new homes in Jenny Lee. On Christmas Eve she loved to see the decorations of a home on Holmes, another on 17th, one on South Boulevard, and two or three in Hughes. She loved to eat at the Flamingo and Jack’s Chicken Inn, both now defunct.

He walked down the hill to the caretaker’s house.

“Excuse me,” he said to the man who answered the door.

“There was a Tiffany Straton buried here around the first of May. Could you tell me where the grave is?”

“All of the recent ones are down at the west end. As a matter of fact, I think I remember that one. Follow this road all the way to the gate, then right. It’s close to the fence, three-fourths of the way to the next gate.”

“Thank you very much.”

[p.207]He found the grave without difficulty.

TIFFANY ANN STRATON
1970-1984

Far off thou art, but ever nigh;
I have thee still, and I rejoice;
I prosper, circled with thy voice
I shall not lose thee though I die.

There were no trees in this part of the cemetery, and it was hot, close to 100 degrees. You could have privacy and shade where April was buried, but not here. Someone driving by could watch you, and there were no trees to protect you. He hoped they would plant trees someday.

He kneeled and set the roses up against the headstone. He always brought Rose a single coral rose when they went to dances. “A rose for Rose,” he said one night when she came to the door. She laughed and kissed him. He loved the smell of her perfume, the feel of the new dress she was wearing. She had put the rose in a vase, and her mother came out and told them to have a good time.

“We will,” said Rose, taking Ryan’s arm.

Certain years held together perfectly—you could remember what you were doing on July 4th, Thanksgiving, or Christmas, and you simply did not confuse one year with another.  That’s the way 1960 was for him, the year he met Rose, Bikila won his first gold medal, and Kennedy was elected. Or 1963, the year he graduated, taking Rose to the senior ball, his mother and Kennedy both dying. Most other years faded together, events shifting and trading places. So that you knew what you did on your eighteenth birthday but not what you did on your thirty-fourth. You could remember the month and year you first heard “Wake Up, Little Susie,” but you couldn’t say within [p.208]three years when you first heard “Evergreen.” You could vividly recall basketball games at Central Junior High but couldn’t say ifit burned down in ’69 or ’74. The past grew sharper, the present more muddled.

Rose had been fifteen when he met her; now her daughter was thirteen, or had been thirteen. This girl would never play tennis with her boyfriend, get asked to senior balls and homecoming dances. She would never fall in love and have children.  A whole lifetime had been taken from her. He hoped Rose would come to the cemetery and see the flowers he had left.

 

They had painted Rose’s house green, an ugly green. The house he remembered was gray with white trim, with a ’60 Oldsmobile in the driveway, not a Chevy Citation. But in twenty years the color of the house had probably changed more than once, the car in the driveway five or ten times.

He did a U-turn and drove past the house one more time, then six blocks south to 20th, to the house his parents bought after leaving Alpine, the house where his mother died.

It was hardly recognizable. Instead of painting it a different color, someone had simply ignored it, paint peeling away everywhere. April’s flower beds were overrun with weeds and grass, and the shrub she had planted near the driveway gone.  A ‘60s Ford was parked on the grass, both of its back tires missing.
He tried to remember the last time he and Rose had been in this house together. It would have been after his mother’s death and before his dad sold the house and moved to Florida.  But it was twenty years ago. He couldn’t remember.

He wished he could go inside, to stand in his old room and remember where the bed had been, the record player, and desk.  The marks on the wall where his mother had measured his height would be long gone, along with the spots where he had pinned up pictures of Kennedy, Bikila, and Buddy Holly. April’s [p.209]garden plot in the back would be gone, along with the swing set and high jumping pit his father had made for him.

He drove to the end of the block and got out of the car. He had no idea if Mrs. Johnson still lived here or if she was even alive, but she had been a good friend of April’s, and he wanted to see her.

The lady at the door told him Mrs. Johnson had moved a few years ago, over by the high school somewhere. Checking the phone book, he found a B. Johnson just two blocks from the high school.

He pulled up in front of the house but didn’t get out. Maybe Sunday morning was a terrible time to visit someone without notice. Then he saw the knickknacks in the window; this had to be the right house.

He heard noises in the house when he knocked, then the door opened slightly and a woman’s voice asked, “Yes?”

“Mrs. Johnson?”

She had aged terribly, hardly resembling the person he had known.

“Yes,” she said.

“It’s Ryan Masterson.”

She was dressed in a robe, her hair uncombed.

“Just a minute,” she said.

He waited on the step for maybe two minutes. Then she asked him to come in.

“Thank you,” he said, hardly believing it was really her.

From the way she acted, he questioned whether she remembered him.

He stood in the living room, not wanting to sit down before she asked him to.

“Now,” she said, “how can I help you?”

“I’m Ryan Masterson. Do you remember me—April Masterson’s son?”

“I’m not sure that I do.”

[p.210]“I’m looking for a Mrs. Johnson who used to live on 20th.”

“That wouldn’t be me. Is her first name Edna?”

“Yes, I think it might be.”

“She lives one block over. You aren’t the first one to get us mixed up.”

“Oh, I’m very sorry. I’m here from Salt Lake City, and I haven’t seen her for years. She was a good friend of my mother’s.”

“I’m sure she’ll be very happy to see you.”

Her living room and kitchen were immaculate, too clean, as though she seldom had visitors.

She asked if he had grown up in Idaho Falls.

“Yes, I lived here till I was eighteen.”

“My husband and I had a farm out in Osgood. Forty acres. We raised our family there. He passed away in 1975, and I moved here.”

She had a pained expression as she mentioned her husband.

“I had some friends in high school from Osgood,” he said.

“It’s a good place.”

“Well, I’m sorry to have disturbed you,” he said, walking to the door.

“Edna Johnson lives on 5th, on the corner, in a basement apartment.”

He opened the door and looked back at her. She looked like she wanted him to stay.

“Thank you, Mrs. Johnson.”

“You’re welcome. Goodbye.”

Alone on a Sunday morning. She might read the paper, look at the TV for a while. Then what would she do?

He found Mrs. Johnson’s apartment, with the same kind of knickknacks in the window. No one answered.

He drove east, toward Wyoming.

He started to climb near Ririe, the flat, straight fields [p.211]giving way to rolling, circular farmland spotted by clumps of forest.

CHAINS ADVISED BEYOND THIS POINT WHEN
ROAD IS SNOWY OR ICY

On the left side of the road the Snake River suddenly dropped into a canyon, winding in and out of view, the old two-lane highway hugging the edge.

The view grew more spectacular as you approached Wyoming, the disappearing fields looking too steep to be farmable. He got closer and closer to the Teton Range. Ranger, Done, Eagle’s Rest, Moran, Teewinot, Owen, and the Grand. He had memorized the names as he, Clark, and Neal paddled a canoe on the Snake, in that magnificent country between Jackson and Yellowstone Park. They saw beaver, river otter, weasel, badger, deer, elk, moose, buffalo, black bear, and coyote.

“Look out, here come some rapids!” Neal would yell as he flailed with his paddle.

He hit construction as the road curved down to the river, a straight, wide highway slashing into the wilderness. Then he came around the bend and down to the bridge. But this wasn’t the bridge he remembered. Then he looked to his left and saw the embankments of the old bridge, islands in the river.

The road started to climb again, the river below turning slow and swampy, full of marsh and cattails. He looked for the spot where Frank Sears, drunk as usual, had driven off the road one night, killing his wife, Opal, April’s best friend. April had cried for an hour without stopping, Clark trying awkwardly to comfort her.

Finally he had called Norma.

Norma didn’t reason with her or tell her to get control of herself; she held her and cried with her.

SWAN VALLEY—Population 135

[p.212]Then the road forked, with Victor and Driggs to the left and Palisades and Alpine to the right.

He stayed to the right, passing the old theatre just before he got to Irwin, its metal roof completely rounded to keep the snow off He was surprised the building was still standing. Who could say how long it had been boarded up, tumbleweeds trapped in the entrance?

It was the only movie house between Idaho Falls and Afton, the lobby always bustling with kids, a line of pickups parked outside, candy bars, popcorn, and drinks all a nickel.

“Be careful,” his mother would tell him when he left with a friend to see a movie. “The boy will be fine,” his dad would say.

IRWIN—Population 113

He slowed down just out of Irwin, trying to remember the curve in the road as you passed Neal’s cabin. He could see the cabin in his mind, and the ditch and the fence, but he couldn’t see anything like that in the reality of the present.

Into Palisades, and he pulled up to another long, narrow structure with a rounded roof.

SNOWBALL CAFE AND LOUNGE

The booths, stools at the counter, and carpet were all new, or new to him. The pinball machines were gone, Ms. Pacman and Defender in their places.

The hamburger was bland, the fries undercooked. And they were cut thick. The old fries had been thin and crisp.

The years 1954 and 1984 could never mesh in his mind:  Pinky Lee would be baffled by J. R. Ewing, Gabby Hayes would hoot at Michael Knight, and the eight-year-old Ryan Masterson would never have made sense of the thirty-eight-year-old Ryan Masterson.

There was a picture of Ted Williams on the wall.

[p.213]He had retired in 1960, while Kennedy and Nixon were fighting it out. He had to be close to seventy by now, but who could believe the young athlete in the picture was now seventy?

Saying Ted Williams grew old was like saying nothing lasted and therefore nothing was important.

PALISADES DAM POWER PLANT
RECREATION AREA
VISITORS WELCOME
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR
BUREAU OF RECLAMATION

An earth-filled dam 270 feet high, 2100 feet long, with a reservoir having 78 miles of shoreline and a total capacity of 1,401,000 acre-feet.

His father and Uncle Neal had helped build this dam thirty years ago. It was still standing and would still be standing in a hundred years.

“Yes sir,” Neal used to say, “that is one fine dam we built.”

The reservoir took you by surprise. You climbed to the top of the dam knowing it had water behind it, but you were never ready for its size.

The reservoir brought images of his mother: standing at the waffle iron with bacon sizzling on the stove; pulling him back into his grandpa’s house as Neal and Clark were about to slaughter a lamb; sitting alone at the table in the trailer, sipping her coffee.

When Clark was gone, she sat and read, often letting Ryan stay up late. They listened to the radio, KID corning in strong after dusk: Drew Pearson and Walter Winchell; Guy Lombardo, Lawrence Welk, and Liberace; Jack Benny and Red Skelton; Perry Mason and Nora Drake.

After the dam was finished she had carefully watched the [p.214]progress of the reservoir. “It’s getting bigger, isn’t it Ry’? As big as the ocean.”

Each time he expected the reservoir to end, he would wind through the evergreens and the cottonwoods to see a new reservoir, just as large as the last one, with parts of it disappearing on the other side.

The road came down till it was level with the water. He could see the edge of the reservoir now, and beyond that a flat expanse trapped by mountains. Alpine.

HOWDY—YOU’RE IN BIG WYOMING

The first gas station he passed had a large sign advertising fireworks, big business in Wyoming.

“Let’s run over to the store for a few fireworks,” his dad would say. They’d shoot them off in the clearing in front of the trailer house, Roman candles that made you believe you could fly. “That was a nice one,” April would say, sitting next to the trailer in a lawn chair. She always worried about fire crackers, reminding Ryan to be careful.

ALPINE—Population 275, Elevation 5,700

On his right he saw a new motel and restaurant, the parking lot almost full.

CLEAN, COMFORTABLE ROOMS                       $35
STEAK, SALAD, AND PIE                                        $5.95
RV’S, TENTS                                                             $15
SHOWERS, GAS HOOK-UPS

Alpine: a few motels and restaurants, a couple of gas stations, a bar, a market, a port of entry, and homes scattered like they had been tossed from an airplane.
A mile out of town he turned left, onto a dirt road, following it till he came to a locked gate.

[p.215]PRIVATE PROPERTY / NO TRESPASSING /
KEEP OUT

He got out of the car. A hundred yards away, up against the mountain, was where their trailer had been.

Clark had loved living there, so close to the mountains, with the Snake only minutes away. But April had been lonely.

He drove another mile down the highway and turned right this time, crossing the river and climbing up the hill. He drove slowly, his window rolled down, and he saw the buck before he heard it, bounding alongside him, maybe ten yards away.  He stopped to watch as it made a ninety-degree turn away from him.

“That was a beauty,” Clark would have said, climbing out of the truck to watch.

He drove farther into the forest, then pulled off the dirt road and stopped. He could see the reservoir through the trees, then Alpine, a line of foothills above the buildings and a line of mountains above the foothills. Clark loved this view.

He had just got out of the car when he heard someone coming fast up the road. A forest ranger in a jeep pulled in behind his car and stopped. He stared at Ryan as he put on his hat and took the keys out of the ignition.

“Please don’t pull off the road except in designated areas.”

“Okay.”

“We get people up here in four-wheel drives and motorbikes, cutting up the land. You drive a motorbike through a meadow like that and you ruin the natural environment.”

“I’m sure that’s true,” said Ryan.

“We can’t allow it.”

He looked at Ryan’s car and then back to Ryan.

“You’re not up here to cut wood, are you?”

“No. Just wanted to look around.”

“You’ve got to have a permit to cut wood.”

[p.216]“I know that,” said Ryan. He couldn’t help smiling.

“It’s not funny. We had a guy up here last week, driving a Mustang. Had a camera and acted like he was taking pictures.  Come to find out he had a chain saw in the trunk. Tried to get out of here with a car full of wood. We fined him good.”

Ryan didn’t say anything.

“People think the wood is free.”

“You can check my trunk if you’d like,” said Ryan.

“I’ll take you up on that.”

Ryan opened the trunk, and the ranger looked down at the spare tire, jack, army blanket, tool box, battery cables, antifreeze, and fire extinguisher.

“Fire extinguisher,” he said. “Don’t see too many people with one of those.”

He climbed back into his jeep and disappeared up the road.

Ryan walked toward the trees, trying to find the spot where he used to camp with his father.

After a while he moved slowly to the edge of the water, its surface glistening. He reached down, cupped his hands, felt the icy water on his fingers. He brought back to his mouth a handful and drank. It’s been a long time, he thought.