Contents | March 2001
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More fiction from The Atlantic Monthly.
Big Bend - Page 2
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t 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.
r. 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.
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 2001; Big Bend - 01.03; Volume 287, No. 3; page 60-67.