Contents | March 2001
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More fiction from The Atlantic Monthly.
Big Bend - Page 3
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tubby 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.
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.