Big Bend

A short story
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That night Mr. Hunter (the crew all called him Mr. Hunter) lay quietly awake for two hours before the line of his thoughts finally made the twitching conversion to mirage and hallucination that heralded ease and melting sleep.

What had kept him awake was primarily a worry that he was being too much the imperious old businessman, the self he thought he'd conquered—even killed—in retirement, the part of himself that poor Betty had least admired (though this was the part that brought home the bacon). This area of worry he packaged with a resolution only to ask questions for at least one day of work—no statements or commands or observations or commentary, no matter what, to Stubby or anyone else; no matter what, questions only.

Stubby, who was now snortingly asleep in the next bunk of their nice but spare staff accommodations here at Big Bend National Park, was not hard to compartmentalize: Mr. Hunter would simply stop laughing or smiling at or even acknowledging Stubby's stupid jokes and jibes, would not rise to bait (politics primarily), would not pretend to believe Stubby's stories, especially those about his exploits with women. Scott was Stubby's actual name. He was fifty-three, an old hippie who had never cut his ponytail or jettisoned the idea that corporations were ruining the world, and who called the unlikely women of his tall tales "chicks" and "chiquitas." Strange bedfellows, Stubby and Mr. Hunter, who shared a two-bed room in the workers' quarters.

Another cause of sleeplessness was Martha Kolodny of Chicago, here in blazing, gorgeous, blooming, desolate Big Bend on an amateur ornithological quest. Stubby called her "Mothra," which had been funny at first, given Ms. Kolodny's size and thorough, squawking presence, but which was funny no longer, given the startling fact of Mr. Hunter's crush on her, which had arrived unannounced after his long conversation with her just this evening, in the middle of a huge laugh from Ms. Kolodny, a huge and happy, hilarious laugh from the heart of her very handsome heart. The Kolodny compartment in his businesslike brain he closed and latched with a simple instruction to himself: Do not have crushes, Mr. Hunter. He was too old for crushes ("sneakers" he'd called them in high school, class of 1944). And Ms. Kolodny was not the proper recipient of a crush in any case. She was under fifty and certainly over 150 pounds, Mr. Hunter's own lifelong adult weight, and married, completely married, two large rings on the proper finger, giant gemstones blazing.

Still other concerns, carefully placed by Mr. Hunter one by one in their nighttime lockers: the house in Atlanta (Arnie would take care of the yard and the gardens, and Miss Feather would clean the many rooms, as always, in his absence); the neglect of his retirement portfolio (Fairchild Ltd. had always needed prodding but had always gotten the job done, spectacularly in the past several years); the coming Texas summer, a summer he might rather miss.

Oh, but Betty, his wife, his girl, his one and only love, his lover, his helpmate, his best friend, mother of their three (thoroughly adult) children, dead of stroke three years. They had planned all they would do when he retired; and when he did retire, she died. So he was mourning not only the loss of her but also the loss of his long-held vision of the future, the thought that one distant day she would bury him. No compartment was large enough to compartmentalize Bitty (as he always called her), but he achieved a kind of soft peace, like sleep, when he thought of her. He no longer experienced the sharp pains and gouged holes everywhere in him and the tears every night. Count your blessings, Mr. Hunter, he had thought wryly, and had melted a little at one broad edge of his consciousness, and had soon fallen asleep in the West Texas night.

The National Park Service hired senior citizens, as part of its policy of not discriminating based on age and so forth, for pleasant jobs at above minimum wage. And because they didn't accept volunteers for the real, honest work that Mr. Hunter had decided to escape into for a salutary year, he signed on for pay, though he certainly didn't need the money. And here in Texas, Mr. Hunter, rich as Croesus and older, found himself shoveling sand up into the back of the smallest dump truck he'd ever seen, half shovelfuls so as not to hurt his back, and no one minded how little he did. He was old in the eyes of his fellows on the work crew—a seventysomething, as Stubby pointed out, working for $6.13 an hour.

The crew was motley, all right: Mr. Hunter, who was assumed to be the widower he was, and assumed to be needy, which of course he was not (in fact, the more he compared himself with his new colleagues, the wealthier he knew himself to be). Dylan Briscoe, painfully polite, adrift after college, who had wanted to go to Yellowstone to follow his ranger girlfriend but had been assigned here the previous summer. He lost his girl, met a new girl, spent the winter in Texas with Juanita from Lajitas, a plainspoken Mexican-American woman of no beauty, hovered near Mr. Hunter on every job, and gave Mr. Hunter his crew name—Mr. Hunter—because Dylan was constitutionally unable to associate the name Dennis with such an old geezer. Freddy was a brainy, obnoxious jock taking a semester off from the University of Alabama. He was leery of Mr. Hunter, disdainful of Stubby, horrible on the subject of women ("gash," he called them collectively), resentful of work, smelling of beer from the start of the day, yet well read and decently educated despite all. Luis Marichal, the crew boss, about whom much was assumed (jail, knife fights, mayhem) but little was actually known, was liked by all, despite his otherness, for saying "Quit complaining" in a scary voice to Freddy more than once. He always had a gentle smile for Mr. Hunter. Finally, Stubby, short and fat and truly good-humored. Nothing needed to be assumed about Stubby, because Stubby told all: he had recently beat a drug habit, was once a roadie for the Rolling Stones, had been married thrice, had a child from each marriage, had worked many tech jobs in the early days of computers, had fallen into drink after the last divorce or before it, and then into cocaine, and then into heroin, had ended up in the hospital for four months in profound depression, had recovered, had "blown out the toxins," had found that work with his hands and back made him sane. And sane he was, he said. This work crew in Texas had made him so.

All of them earned $6.13 an hour, excepting Dylan, hired on some student-intern program with a lower pay scale, too shy to ask for parity, and of course excepting Luis, who'd been crew here many years though he wasn't thirty, and was foreman—Luis made probably nine bucks an hour, with four young kids to support. And in a way excepting Mr. Hunter, who in addition to his $6.13 an hour from the Seniors-in-the-Parks Program was watching his retirement lump sum grow into a mountain in eight figures.

Mr. Hunter shoveled sand with the rest of them, a wash of sand from the last big rain which had made nearly a dune on the shoulder of the road for a hundred yards, a dune dangerous to bicyclists. The crew shoveled into the small dump truck, and Luis drove, if rolling the truck ahead a few feet at a time could be called driving. Mr. Hunter wore comfortable and expensive relaxed-fit jeans. He preferred shoveling to the jobs the other seniors got: cashier at the postcard stand, official greeter, filing associate, inventory specialist, cushy nonsense along those lines.

Mr. Hunter shoveled as lightly as anybody and did not laugh at Stubby's stories and thought of Martha Kolodny for no reason he could make sense of—her laugh from the center of her heart and soul, and her large frame that oughtn't to be alluring to him at all but was indeed, and her braininess. Intelligence always was sexy to him. She was as smart as Bitty and as quick, though Bitty would have called her noisy.

Big Bend here in April after a wet winter was in thorough bloom: prickly pear, cholla, century plants, scores of others, colors picked from the sunset and the sandstone cliffs and the backs of birds. Mr. Hunter, thinking to get some conversation started, asked his first question of the day, knowing the answer in advance: "Dylan, what can you tell us about the subject of love?"

Dylan blushed and said, "Juanita," with evident pride and huge love for his woman. And everyone at once said, "Juanita from Lajitas," which was fun to say and which had become a chant and which they knew Dylan liked to hear. Not even Freddy would say anything that might harm Dylan-boy's spirit.

"You are like me," Luis said. "A steady heart and a solid love."

And Stubby, damn him, said, "Mr. Hunter, what about you?"

"Have you noticed that I'm only asking questions today?" Mr. Hunter replied.

"But I saw you stalking Mothra," Stubby said. "Mothra, Queen of the Bird-watchers' Bus. She's a cute one, she is. Tall drink of water, she is. I'll bet she was one athlete in her day! Iron Woman! Anchor in the freestyle relay! Bench press two hundred pounds, easy. What do you say, Mr. Hunter? You were gabbing with her nearly three hours yesterday in the parking lot there. You were! No, no, sir, you were! You're a better man than I! More power to you! She won't give me the time of day; with you she's laughing and shouting and joking! And she was scratching her nose the whole time, which Keith Richards once told me is the sure sign you're going to get a little wiggle in."

All work (such as it was) ceased. Mr. Hunter made a game smile and smiled some more and enjoyed the breeze and the attention. He asked a question: "Do you know that Plato's Republic begins with a discussion of just this subject—of love and sex? And do you know that one of the fellows sitting around Socrates says something like 'I saw Sophocles'—the old poet, he calls him—'I saw the old poet down in town the other day, three score and ten, and I asked him: At your age, Sophocles, what of love?' And do you know what Sophocles told that man? Sophocles told that man, 'I feel I have been released by a mad and furious beast!"'

The crew stood with eyebrows raised a long time, absorbing this tale from the mysterious void of time that was Mr. Hunter's life.

After a long silence Stubby said, "Oh, fuck you."

Mr. Hunter knew what Stubby meant: the implied analogy was faulty. And Stubby was right. Martha Kolodny was certainly on Mr. Hunter's mind, Martha Kolodny of all women, and the mad and furious beast had hold of Mr. Hunter certainly. It wasn't as if he'd had no erections in the past three affectionless years—but the one he'd had this morning caught his attention surely. And it wasn't all about erections, either. It was that laugh from the heart and the bright conversation and something more: Martha Kolodny could see Mr. Hunter, and he hadn't been seen clearly in three years. Nor had his particular brand of jokes been laughed at, or his ideas praised, nor had someone noticed his hair (still full and shiny, and bone-in-the-desert white) or looked at his hands so, or gazed into his eyes.

At the Thursday-evening ranger's program a very bright young scientist lectured about Mexican fruit bats with passion, somewhat mollifying Dennis Hunter's disappointment. Oh, in the growing night the assembled travelers and rangers and tourists and campers and workers (including Stubby) did see bats, as promised. And among the assembled listeners were a number of birders from Martha Kolodny's bus. But Martha was not among them.

Dennis Hunter lurked on a back bench in clean clothes—Hong Kong-tailored white shirt, khaki pants, Birkenstocks (ah, retirement), eight-needle silken socks—trying to remember how long Martha had said her birding group would be here. Until April 17 was the date he remembered, almost his second daughter's birthday; his second daughter was, yes, about Martha's age. Five more days, only five.

Then he felt a sweeping presence and heard a suppressed laugh from deep inside the heart of someone's capacious heart, and Martha stood just beside him. "May I sit?" she asked. This was a whisper, but still louder in Dennis's ear than the ranger's lecture. She sat on his bench and slid to his side like an old friend; got herself settled, deep and quiet, her perfume expansile; put her chin in the air and raised her eyebrows, seeming to try to find her place in the stream of words as the passionate ranger introduced a film.

The heavy narration covered the same ground the lecture had, with less fervor and erudition, but the pictures of bats were pleasing to watch: the film employed all sorts of camera and lighting tricks and slow-motion tricks and freeze-frames and animation. Bats streaming out of Carlsbad Caverns, not eight hours from here. "Always wanted to see that," Martha said, leaning into Dennis. "Always, always."

"I thought for you it was birds," Dennis said.

Martha put a hand to her nose and scratched. "Whatever has wings," she said. Her other hand was on the bench close between them, and she leaned on it so that her head was not a breath away from Dennis's. He smelled her shampoo—coconut and vanilla. Her henna-red hair, braided in a thick lariat, her distinct chin, the strong slope of her nose, her deep tan, her wrinkles from laughing from the heart of her, her wide shoulders and loose white shirt—all of it, all of her, was in his peripheral vision as he watched the film, which was more truly peripheral though he stared at it, her many scents in his nostrils.

The night before, they had taken care of the small talk and more: Martha Kolodny was an arts administrator, which title Dennis pretended not to understand, though he knew well enough what it meant. She was the kind of person he had disdained in his years as a marketing wizard at Pfizer (years he had then told her about). Talking to Martha, he'd felt the truth of something Bitty had once said: he had really grown up after sixty-five. Martha had patiently explained that she ran a grants-writing office that helped to provide funding (not such huge figures as Martha seemed to think) for several arts organizations, the Lyric Opera of Chicago among them. She herself had once danced—modern dance—with high hopes. She was too big, she had said daintily. "My teachers always said I was too big." And she had laughed that laugh that came from the heart of her heart and smote Dennis.

Her husband was a medical scientist at Northwestern, both a Ph.D. and an M.D. His first name was Wences. He was first-generation Polish. He was working on neuro-receptors, about which Dennis knew a thing or two from his years with the drug company. The couple had no kids; they had married late and had decided that at her age kids were not a good idea. Now she was forty-seven. Wences and she barely saw each other. For them the passion had fled. "I'm caught," she had said. "I'm caught in an economic arrangement." Her eyes had been significant, Dennis thought.

The film ended abruptly. The ranger-scientist took the podium in the dark that followed. A spotlight hit his face. Martha sat up and looked at Mr. Hunter fondly; that was the only word for how she looked at him—like an old friend. She whispered, "One Batman joke from this boy and we're out of here!"

In a television voice the ranger said, "That's the Bat Signal, Robin."

"That's it," Martha said, feigning great shock. She rose and took Dennis's hand and pulled him ungently to his feet, and the two of them left the natural amphitheater and were soon striding along a rough path that led into the Chisos Mountains night.

"I knew you'd be at the talk!" Martha said.

"I'm not there now," Dennis said.

She said, "I can't get you out of my head!" She was breathless from the walk. They pulled up at the farthest end of a loop path that looked out over the great basin of the Rio Grande under brilliant, coruscating stars.

"I shoveled sand all day with the boys. Thinking of you."

"I love when you grin just like that," Martha said hotly.

But you are married, Dennis thought to say. He held the words back forcibly. What if she didn't mean anything romantic at all? What an awful gaffe that would be!

They looked out into the blackness of the valley and up into the depths of space and were quiet a long ten minutes. "Mexico over there," Dennis said.

"You know you can rent a canoe and paddle across the Rio Grande to Mexico for lunch? No customs inspection necessary."

He said, "Someone did say that. And at the hot springs, apparently, you can swim across pretty easily. But no lunch."

"Unless you brought your own," Martha said.

"And the hot springs are very nice, too, I hear. Nice to soak in, even in the heat, I hear." He'd heard all this from Freddy in the grossest terms. Freddy had said it was the place he'd bring a bitch, if there were anything but stanking javelinas around here.

"I would like to kiss you," Dennis said. He'd forgotten entirely how this sort of thing was done, knowing only that now (this he'd read), here in the twenty-first century, one got permission for everything, each step, before proceeding.

"I told my husband I wouldn't mess around with anyone while I was in Texas," Martha said. Then, less lightly, "That's the shambles our marriage is in."

"Well, Martha, darling, a kiss is certainly not necessary to a good friendship," Dennis said, glad he'd asked and not just invited rebuff and embarrassment, though he was embarrassed enough.

But Martha kissed him, full on the lips, and he was glad for the Listerine he had swilled and glad that life hadn't ended and glad to remember all the electrical connections and brightened cells and glowing nerves he was remembering from the bottom of his feet to the tip of his tongue as he kissed her and was kissed.

They talked and necked—no better expression for it— for an hour under the stars.

"Well," Dennis said, "I'm afraid, despite best intentions, you have kissed in Texas." He felt bad for Wences Kolodny.

"But I have not messed around," Martha said.

"On technicalities are the great cases won."

She said, "Do you want to take a little swim to Mexico tomorrow?"

"I'll unpack my swimming trunks."

"I said nothing to Wences about messing around in Mexico."

"That isn't funny to me," Dennis said.

But they kissed till near eleven, when the Chicago birders' bus loaded quickly and headed to the birders' hotel, on the outskirts of the enormous national park.

Dennis walked back to his room with feelings he hadn't had in fifty years, pain both physical and metaphysical, elation sublime. Ambivalence scratched and snarled like an enraged animal under his squeaky cot.

Mr. Hunter no longer had the physical strength of his estimable colleagues on the work detail, but they had not his old man's stamina. With his steady work all day he outperformed the college boys, though Stubby could do in a single hour more than the whole crew did in all of a typical day when he got inspired, which he did just before lunch on this day, Friday. Stubby worked like a dog and a demon and an ox, worked as if possessed—every cliché applied. He said, "We don't want Luis in trouble if this sand ain't up and off the road, boys!" They'd got about a quarter of it up the previous day, and already, by noon this day, two quarters more.

The crew stopped for lunch and ate in tired silence. Then, as they settled down into what should normally have been something like a siesta, Stubby turned to Mr. Hunter. He said, "Where did you and the bird lady go last night when you left the lecture so early?"

"Why do you ask?" Mr. Hunter said wryly, as the attention of the crew fell pleasingly upon him.

"I was only worried, is all," Stubby said, even more wryly.

After a long silence Luis grinned and said, "Tell us, Sophocles, old poet, what of love?"

"Love!" Stubby said. "You should have smelled our room in the night! What perfume! And perfume, my brothers, does not rub off without some rubbing!"

Still wryly—he could think of no other safe tack to take—Mr. Hunter said, "Do you imply that an old man should not seek romance?"

"Not s'long as it's with an old lady," Freddy said.

"She's not as old as all that," Stubby said. "She's not yet my age, and I'm a youth, as you can see."

"Is she over forty?" Dylan asked helpfully. Embarrassed, he bit into his burrito and looked out over the dry valley of the Rio Grande.

"Ah, forty!" Stubby said. "Forty is the youth of old age and the old age of youth!"

Freddy said equably, "How old are y'all, anyway, Mr. Hunter?" He leaned a long way, gave a short smile, reached and took one of Luis's tortillas.

"Three score and fourteen," Mr. Hunter replied. "Seventy-four. The youth of death, I would say, if pressed."

"What of love, Sophocles?" Luis said again.

Mr. Hunter could not help himself. He beamed. He said, "Do any of you really believe my private hours are any of your business?"

Stubby said, "Do we not have the right to learn from those older than us? And do you, Mr. Hunter, not have the duty to teach us?"

"Tay-ake her to Viagra Falls," Freddy said.

"Mr. Hunter has twice the cactus you have, hombre," Luis said.

"It's not all about sex," Dylan said.

"Hey, I don't know," Stubby said. "This woman, this bird-watcher, Mothra, obviously she's looking for something her marriage isn't giving her. She's taking power here. She's taking care of her needs. She's unfulfilled."

Dylan said, "But she made a promise."

"What is the nature of the promise we make in marriage?" Mr. Hunter said. He tried to sound wry, playing Socrates, but this was too close to the heart of his worry.

Dylan said, "That we should love, honor, and obey."

"The flesh is weak," Luis said opprobriously.

"The flesh has a job to do," Stubby said.

"I say go for it," Freddy said.

A long silence followed in the windless day, punctuated erratically by the squawks of Mexican jays.

"I don't see how," Mr. Hunter said.

Freddy said, "Well, the boy kisses the girl ..."

And the crew laughed, except for Luis. He said, "And what of your wife in heaven? What will happen when you see her there?"

Only Mr. Hunter had seen Luis as religious before now. The air grew more serious. Everyone stared off, each in his own thoughts.

Then Stubby said, "Actually, there's probably more here than the moral question. You've really fallen for this chick, you know? How are you going to feel if it goes further and then—boom—she's back to her husband? Leaves you alone! That's going to be a blow!"

"When Tina broke up with me ... " Freddy said. The others waited, but that was all he managed. Freddy looked off into the sky, and for the first time they could see his heart in his face and think of him as tender.

"There might be that kind of price," Stubby said.

"This is good advice," Mr. Hunter said. "I don't know if I could tolerate the aftermath of a one-night stand."

Stubby slid off his rock, leaned back against it, and closed his eyes. Dylan lay down, chewing a twig. Luis stood, stretched, patted Mr. Hunter's shoulder, and walked up the road to be alone. Luis prayed after lunch, Mr. Hunter knew. He might have thought Freddy was softly weeping if he didn't know what a tough customer Freddy was.

Mr. Hunter had made up his mind: no married woman for him.

Stubby had joked that Martha was an athlete, and so she was: forty-seven years old, Dennis Hunter's height and weight, she walked with the physical confidence of an athlete, looking in her shorts and stretch top as if she might jump up and fly at any moment. But in Dennis's little rental car her folded legs seemed delicate and soft. Her skin was beautiful to him, and her smell, and her voice.

"I couldn't sleep all last night," she said.

"I could barely work today," he said.

The rest of the talk on the hour's drive to the Hot Springs canyon was about the landscape of the park, and they didn't need to say much for looking at that landscape, the great buttes and cliffs and mesas miles away and unmoving. Martha read from her guidebook: "The park is eight hundred and one thousand one hundred sixty-three acres."

Dennis Hunter hadn't known that.

She read, "The Rio Grande was known to the Spanish conquistadors as the Great River of the North, and to the early pioneers as the River of Ghosts."

"I'm told this was Comanche territory," Dennis said. Luis had told him so.

Martha nodded her head, shook it, and then nodded it. "Comanche territory," she repeated, saying it from the heart of her heart, where her laughter came from.

Oh, God. Dennis felt his heart flowing out to her entirely, yet not leaving his rib cage at all. They drove slowly through the great basin of the River of Ghosts, past the Chisos Mountains. A pickup truck with New Mexico plates zoomed up from behind, passed easily, zoomed out of sight. Dennis thought about how easily he could declare his love and ask dear Martha her intentions. Perhaps Wences was out. Perhaps a split was imminent. How ask? He said, "'Chisos' means something like 'ghostly' in the Apache language." Luis had told him that, too.

They were just quietly driving along, looking at the landscape. "Yes, it is," Martha said. "Ghostly, all right." She put her hands up in a gesture of amazement. She had taken off her rings. "Living things don't belong here. Not people, certainly."

Dennis felt himself and the car almost lifting off the pavement. Not that he was faint—not at all. If anything, he felt more present, floating car and all, with warm blood in his air-conditioned face and something humming in him, thighs to lungs. She'd taken off her rings. Dennis had never taken his ring off, not once for any reason, not since the night it went on his finger, June 11, 1947.

In the small canyon where the hot springs lay, they walked in the bright sun along seabed cliffs, striated layers of the ages thrown up by earth forces at odd angles. Martha immediately heard a great horned owl, and got it calling to her by hooting saucily. Dennis floated; he floated along the dry path and felt that Martha floated too.

Together they inspected the abandoned ruins of the old hotel and store there, the hotel and store about which Martha had read aloud from her guidebook. Together they found the petroglyphs she had read about, and walked along a Comanche path that had become a commercial enterprise's trail to the hot springs and was now a park path for tourists. Martha took Dennis's hand. He wanted to declare his love. How old-fashioned he knew he was! She would laugh at him, he thought, and this laugh would come from her teeth and not her heart.

The path descended between thick reeds and willows and the canyon wall. Soon Martha stopped and put a finger in the air. "Hear the river?"

Yes, Dennis heard it, a rushing sound ahead. Martha's hand was in his, their dry hands casually clasped, pressure of fingers in a small rhythm, a pulse of recognition: something profound between them.

Dennis couldn't find the words as the Rio Grande came into view: "Doesn't it ... isn't it ... doesn't this just ... tickle you?" That was pathetic. He thought and tried again: "This little sprite of a muddy river, this ancient flow, this reed-bound oasis? That this is the famous border?"

"Dennis, I don't know what to do."

"That that is Mexico over there?"

"May I see you in Atlanta?"

They stopped on the plain and dusty rock—flat, polished sandstone, solidified mud. They stopped and held hands and looked at the river and could not look at each other.

She said, "What is this between us?"

Dennis could think of words for what was between them. It was passion, nothing less, on the one hand, and her husband, nothing less, on the other, both between them and no way to say a word at this moment about either. He let a long squeeze of her hand say what it could, and then he pulled her along. Brightly he said, "I expected gun turrets and chain-link fence and border stations."

"Well, there's nothing but desert for hundreds of miles. They just don't watch much here."

Pleasingly, no other soul occupied the hot springs, a steady gush of very hot water rising up out of a deteriorated square culvert built a century past. The buildings were gone—swept away by floods, they must have been. But one foundation remained, and formed a sort of enormous bathtub the size of a patio. In the hot air of the day the water didn't steam at all. Soft moss grew in the tub.

Martha sat on a rock and took her shoes off. Dennis liked her feet. He wondered if Wences liked her feet. He liked her knees very much. He liked that she was so strong and big, so unlike Bitty, who was a bone. He liked the fatty dimpling of Martha's thighs in her black shorts. She dipped her feet in. "Wow, hot," she said.

"Maybe too hot for today?" Dennis said.

"No, no, it's wonderful! And then the river will feel cold. A blessing." Then she said, "Well, no one's around." And she pulled off her shirt, just like that, and clicked something between her breasts to make her bra come loose, and shed it, and stepped out of her shorts and then her lacy panties (worn for him, he was startled to realize) and slipped into the hot water in a fluid motion, Dennis more or less looking away, looking more or less upward at the cliff (cliff swallows up there).

"I'm not sitting here alone," Martha said.

So Dennis tried a fluid kind of stripping like hers, but ended up hopping on one foot, trying to get his pants past his ankles. He stripped, and hopped, and slid into the hot water, self-conscious about his old body, the way his skin had become loose, the spots of him.

"It's love between us," he said, which was not the same as declaring love. "And that you are married."

"No touching in Texas," Martha said, far too lightly.

The water was shallow. She sat bare-breasted, up to her waist in the hot water, not exactly young herself. The water was gentle and very hot and melted them both, turned them red like lobsters.

"Swim," Martha said. She climbed out of the pool, down old steps into the river, and dropped herself into the current. Stroke, stroke, out of the current and she was standing on the bottom again, waist-deep. She was forty-seven, and married, and standing waist-deep and naked in the Rio Grande River, not twenty feet from Mexico. Dennis felt her gaze, considered Wences, heard Luis's stern voice, heard Freddy's (go for it), heard Bitty's funny laugh, thought of his three children, heard his daughter Candy (Daddy, I know Mother would want you to date), and followed Martha into the river, enjoying the relative cold of it after the scalding spring. Stroke, stroke, stroke, he was being swept away in the current; he pictured himself washed up on a flat rock dead and naked miles downstream. But Martha got hold of his hand, laughing, and they stood waist-deep together in the stream rushing past, silty, sweetly warm water.

"I'll get our stuff," Martha said.

She swam back and bundled everything—large towels, clothes, binoculars, bottle of wine—and easily swam with one arm in the air till she was back by Dennis's side, holding the bundle all in front of her chest, dry. And if not absolutely dry, what difference? It would dry in seconds in the sun and parched air.

Suddenly she said, "The American Association of Arts Administrators conference is in Atlanta this year." They stood in the flow of the river. "I could stay a week with you," she said. "Maybe more. It's June. Only two months from now."

"After that?" Dennis said.

Solemnly she said, "We shall see what we shall see." Then she laughed from the heart of the heart of her, and Dennis laughed and stumbled, and they made their way through the water to Mexico.

"I hope no one shoots us going back," Dennis said.

They made the rocky shore in Mexico and walked, not far, walked in Mexico until they were out of sight of the hot springs across the river, and right there under the late sun she spread the blanket and right there hugged him naked and the two older Americans in Mexico kissed and Dennis Hunter was a young man again—no, really—a boy in love, a tanned and buff shoveler of sand, a repairer of trails, a knower of animals, a listener to birds, anything but a widower alone in Atlanta the rest of his miserable days, miserable days alone.

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A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

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The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

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