We had both been involved with other people that spring, but when June came and school was out we decided to let our house for the summer and move from Palo Alto to the north coast country of California. Our son, Richard, went to Nancy’s grandmother’s place in Pasco, Washington, to live for the summer and work toward saving money for college in the fall. His grandmother knew the situation at home and had begun working on getting him up there and locating him a job long before his arrival. She’d talked to a farmer friend of hers and had secured a promise of work for Richard baling hay and building fences. Hard work, but Richard was looking forward to it. He left on the bus in the morning of the day after his high school graduation. I took him to the station and parked and went inside to sit with him until his bus was called. His mother had already held him and cried and kissed him goodbye and given him a long letter that he was to deliver to his grandmother upon his arrival. She was at home now finishing last-minute packing for our own move and waiting for the couple who were to take our house. I bought Richard’s ticket, gave it to him, and we sat on one of the benches in the station and waited. We’d talked a little about things on the way to the station.
‘Are you and mom going to get a divorce?’ he’d asked. It was Saturday morning, and there weren’t many cars.
‘Not if we can help it,’ I said. ‘We don’t want to. That’s why we’re going away from here and don’t expect to see anyone all summer. That’s why we’ve rented our house for the summer and rented the house up in Arcata. Why you’re going away, too, I guess. One reason anyway. Not to mention the fact that you’ll come home with your pockets filled with money. We don’t want to get a divorce. We want to be alone for the summer and try to work things out.’
‘You still love mom?’ he said. ‘She told me she loves you.’
‘Of course I do,’ I said. ‘You ought to know that by now. We’ve just had our share of troubles and heavy responsibilities, like everyone else, and now we need time to be alone and work things out. But don’t worry about us. You just go up there and have a good summer and work hard and save your money. Consider it a vacation, too. Get in all the fishing you can. There’s good fishing around there.’
‘Waterskiing, too,’ he said. ‘I want to learn to waterski.’
‘I’ve never been waterskiing,’ I said. ‘Do some of that for me too, will you?’
We sat in the bus station. He looked through his yearbook while I held a newspaper in my lap. Then his bus was called and we stood up. I embraced him and said again, ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry. Where’s your ticket?’
He patted his coat pocket and then picked up his suitcase. I walked him over to where the line was forming in the terminal, then I embraced him again and kissed him on the cheek and said goodbye.
‘Goodbye, Dad,’ he said and turned from me so that I wouldn’t see his tears.
I drove home to where our boxes and suitcases were waiting in the living room. Nancy was in the kitchen drinking coffee with the young couple she’d found to take our house for the summer. I’d met the couple, Jerry and Liz, graduate students in math, for the first time a few days before, but we shook hands again, and I drank a cup of coffee that Nancy poured. We sat around the table and drank coffee while Nancy finished her list of things they should look out for or do at certain times of the month, the first and last of each month, where they should send any mail, and the like. Nancy’s face was tight. Sun fell through the curtain on to the table as it got later in the morning.
Finally, things seemed to be in order and I left the three of them in the kitchen and began loading the car. It was a furnished house we were going to, furnished right down to plates and cooking utensils, so we wouldn’t need to take much with us from this house, only the essentials.
I’d driven up to Eureka, 350 miles north of Palo Alto, on the north coast of California, three weeks before and rented us the furnished house. I went with Susan, the woman I’d been seeing. We stayed in a motel at the edge of town for three nights while I looked in the newspaper and visited realtors. She watched me as I wrote out a cheque for the three months’ rent. Later, back at the motel, in bed, she lay with her hand on her forehead and said, ‘I envy your wife. I envy Nancy. You hear people talk about “the other woman” always and how the incumbent wife has the privileges and the real power, but I never really understood or cared about those things before. Now I see. I envy her. I envy her the life she will have with you in that house this summer. I wish it were me. I wish it were us. Oh, how I wish it were us. I feel so crummy,’ she said. I stroked her hair.
Nancy was a tall, long-legged woman with brown hair and eyes and a generous spirit. But lately we had been coming up short on generosity and spirit. The man she had been seeing was one of my colleagues, a divorced, dapper, three-piece-suit-and-tie fellow with greying hair who drank too much and whose hands, some of my students told me, sometimes shook in the classroom. He and Nancy had drifted into their affair at a party during the holidays not too long after Nancy had discovered my own affair. It all sounds boring and tacky now–it is boring and tacky–but during that spring it was what it was, and it consumed all of our energies and concentration to the exclusion of everything else. Sometime in late April we began to make plans to rent our house and go away for the summer, just the two of us, and try to put things back together, if they could be put back together. We each agreed we would not call or write or otherwise be in touch with the other parties. So we made arrangements for Richard, found the couple to look after our house, and I had looked at a map and driven north from San Francisco and found Eureka, and a realtor who was willing to rent a furnished house to a respectable middle-aged married couple for the summer. I think I even used the phrase second honeymoon to the realtor, God forgive me, while Susan smoked a cigarette and read tourist brochures out in the car.
I finished storing the suitcases, bags and cartons in the trunk and backseat and waited while Nancy said a final goodbye on the porch. She shook hands with each of them and turned and came toward the car. I waved to the couple, and they waved back. Nancy got in and shut the door. ‘Let’s go,’ she said. I put the car in gear and we headed for the freeway. At the light just before the freeway we saw a car ahead of us come off the freeway trailing a broken muffler, the sparks flying. ‘Look at that,’ Nancy said. ‘It might catch fire.’ We waited and watched until the car managed to pull off the road on to the shoulder.
We stopped at a little café off the highway near Sebastopol. Eat and Gas, the sign read. We laughed at the sign. I pulled up in front of the café and we went inside and took a table near a window in the back of the café. After we had ordered coffee and sandwiches, Nancy touched her forefinger to the table and began tracing lines in the wood. I lit a cigarette and looked outside. I saw rapid movement, and then I realized I was looking at a hummingbird in the bush beside the window. Its wings moved in a blur of motion and it kept dipping its beak into a blossom on the bush.
‘Nancy, look,’ I said. ‘There’s a hummingbird.’
But the hummingbird flew at this moment and Nancy looked and said, ‘Where? I don’t see it.’
‘It was just there a minute ago,’ I said. ‘Look, there it is. Another one, I think. It’s another hummingbird.’
We watched the hummingbird until the waitress brought our order and the bird flew at the movement and disappeared around the building.
‘Now that’s a good sign, I think,’ I said. ‘Hummingbirds. Hummingbirds are supposed to bring luck.’
‘I’ve heard that somewhere,’ she said. ‘I don’t know where I heard that, but I’ve heard it. Well,’ she said, ‘luck is what we could use. Wouldn’t you say?’
‘They’re a good sign,’ I said. ‘I’m glad we stopped here.’
She nodded. She waited a minute, then she took a bite of her sandwich.
We reached Eureka just before dark. We passed the motel on the highway where Susan and I had stayed and had spent the three nights some weeks before, then turned off the highway and took a road up over a hill overlooking the town. I had the house keys in my pocket. We drove over the hill and for a mile or so until we came to a little intersection with a service station and a grocery store. There were wooded mountains ahead of us in the valley, and pastureland all around. Some cattle were grazing in a field behind the service station. ‘This is pretty country,’ Nancy said. ‘I’m anxious to see the house.’
‘Almost there,’ I said. ‘It’s just down this road,’ I said, ‘and over that rise.’ ‘Here,’ I said in a minute and pulled into a long driveway with hedge on either side. ‘Here it is. What do you think of this?’ I’d asked the same question of Susan when she and I had stopped in the driveway.
‘It’s nice,’ Nancy said. ‘It looks fine, it does. Let’s get out.’
We stood in the front yard a minute and looked around. Then we went up the porch steps and I unlocked the front door and turned on the lights. We went through the house. There were two small bedrooms, a bath, a living room with old furniture and a fireplace, and a big kitchen with a view of the valley.
‘Do you like it?’ I said.
‘I think it’s just wonderful,’ Nancy said. She grinned. ‘I’m glad you found it. I’m glad we’re here.’ She opened the refrigerator and ran a finger over the counter. ‘Thank God, it looks clean enough. I won’t have to do any cleaning.’
‘Right down to clean sheets on the beds,’ I said. ‘I checked. I made sure. That’s the way they’re renting it. Pillows even. And pillowcases, too.’
‘We’ll have to buy some firewood,’ she said. We were standing in the living room. ‘We’ll want to have a fire on nights like this.’
‘I’ll look into firewood tomorrow,’ I said. ‘We can go shopping then too and see the town.’
She looked at me and said, ‘I’m glad we’re here.’
‘So am I,’ I said. I opened my arms and she moved to me. I held her. I could feel her trembling. I turned her face up and kissed her on either cheek. ‘Nancy,’ I said.
‘I’m glad we’re here,’ she said.
We spent the next few days settling in, taking trips into Eureka to walk around and look in store windows, and hiking across the pastureland behind the house all the way to the woods. We bought groceries and I found an ad in the newspaper for firewood, called, and a day or so afterwards two young men with long hair delivered a pick-up truckload of alder and stacked it in the carport. That night we sat in front of the fireplace after dinner and drank coffee and talked about getting a dog.
‘I don’t want a pup,’ Nancy said. ‘Something we have to clean up after or that will chew things up. That we don’t need. But I’d like to have a dog, yes. We haven’t had a dog in a long time. I think we could handle a dog up here,’ she said.
‘And after we go back, after summer’s over?’ I said. I rephrased the question. ‘What about keeping a dog in the city?’
‘We’ll see. Meanwhile, let’s look for a dog. The right kind of dog. I don’t know what I want until I see it. We’ll read the classifieds and we’ll go to the pound, if we have to.’ But though we went on talking about dogs for several days, and pointed out dogs to each other in people’s yards we’d drive past, dogs we said we’d like to have, nothing came of it, we didn’t get a dog.
Nancy called her mother and gave her our address and telephone number. Richard was working and seemed happy, her mother said. She herself was fine. I heard Nancy say, ‘We’re fine. This is good medicine.’
One day in the middle of July we were driving the highway near the ocean and came over a rise to see some lagoons that were closed off from the ocean by sand spits. There were some people fishing from shore, and two boats out on the water.
I pulled the car off on to the shoulder and stopped. ‘Let’s see what they’re fishing for,’ I said. ‘Maybe we could get some gear and go ourselves.’
‘We haven’t been fishing in years,’ Nancy said. ‘Not since that time Richard was little and we went camping near Mount Shasta. Do you remember that?’
‘I remember,’ I said. ‘I just remembered too that I’ve missed fishing. Let’s walk down and see what they’re fishing for.’
‘Trout,’ the man said, when I asked. ‘Cut-throats and rainbow trout. Even some steelhead and a few salmon. They come in here in the winter when the spit opens and then when it closes in the spring, they’re trapped. This is a good time of the year for them. I haven’t caught any today, but last Sunday I caught four, about fifteen inches long. Best eating fish in the world, and they put up a hell of a fight. Fellows out in the boats have caught some today, but so far I haven’t done anything today.’
‘What do you use for bait?’ Nancy asked.
‘Anything,’ the man said. ‘Worms, salmon eggs, whole kernel corn. Just get it out there and leave it lay on the bottom. Pull out a little slack and watch your line.’
We hung around a little longer and watched the man fish and watched the little boats chat-chat back and forth the length of the lagoon.
‘Thanks,’ I said to the man. ‘Good luck to you.’
‘Good luck to you,’ he said. ‘Good luck to the both of you.’
We stopped at a sporting goods store on the way back to town and bought licences, inexpensive rods and reels, nylon line, hooks, leaders, sinkers, and a creel. We made plans to go fishing the next morning.
But that night, after we’d eaten dinner and washed the dishes and I had laid a fire in the fireplace, Nancy shook her head and said it wasn’t going to work.
‘Why do you say that?’ I asked. ‘What is it you mean?’
‘I mean it isn’t going to work. Let’s face it.’ She shook her head again. ‘I don’t think I want to go fishing in the morning, either, and I don’t want a dog. No, no dogs. I think I want to go up and see my mother and Richard. Alone. I want to be alone. I miss Richard,’ she said and began to cry. ‘Richard’s my son, my baby,’ she said, ‘and he’s nearly grown and gone. I miss him.’
‘And Del, do you miss Del Shraeder, too?’ I said. ‘Your boyfriend. Do you miss him?’
‘I miss everybody tonight,’ she said. ‘I miss you too. I’ve missed you for a long time now. I’ve missed you so much you’ve gotten lost somehow, I can’t explain it. I’ve lost you. You’re not mine any longer.’
‘Nancy,’ I said.
‘No, no,’ she said. She shook her head. She sat on the sofa in front of the fire and kept shaking her head. ‘I want to fly up and see my mother and Richard tomorrow. After I’m gone you can call your girlfriend.’
‘I won’t do that,’ I said. ‘I have no intention of doing that.’
‘You’ll call her,’ she said.
‘You’ll call Del,’ I said. I felt rubbishy for saying it.
‘You can do what you want,’ she said, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. ‘I mean that. I don’t want to sound hysterical. But I’m going up to Washington tomorrow. Right now I’m going to go to bed. I’m exhausted. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for both of us, Dan. We’re not going to make it. That fisherman today. He wished us good luck.’ She shook her head. ‘I wish us good luck too. We’re going to need it.’
She went into the bathroom and I heard water running in the tub. I went out and sat on the porch steps and smoked a cigarette. It was dark and quiet outside. I looked toward town and could see a faint glow of lights in the sky and patches of ocean fog drifting in the valley. I began to think of Susan. A little later Nancy came out of the bathroom and I heard the bedroom door close. I went inside and put another block of wood on the grate and waited until the flames began to move up the bark. Then I went into the other bedroom and turned the covers back and stared at the floral design on the sheets. Then I showered, dressed in my pyjamas, and went to sit near the fireplace again. The fog was outside the window now. I sat in front of the fire and smoked. When I looked out the window again, something moved in the fog and I saw a horse grazing in the front yard.
I went to the window. The horse looked up at me for a minute, then went back to pulling up grass. Another horse walked past the car into the yard and began to graze. I turned on the porch light and stood at the window and watched them. They were big white horses with long manes. They’d gotten through a fence or an unlocked gate from one of the nearby farms. Somehow they’d wound up in our front yard. They were larking it, enjoying their breakaway immensely. But they were nervous too; I could see the whites of their eyes from where I stood behind the window. Their ears kept rising and falling as they tore out clumps of grass. A third horse wandered into the yard, and then a fourth. It was a herd of white horses, and they were grazing in our front yard.
I went into the bedroom and woke Nancy. Her eyes were red and the skin around the eyes was swollen. She had her hair up in curlers and a suitcase lay open on the floor near the foot of the bed.
‘Nancy,’ I said. ‘Honey, come and see what’s in the front yard. Come and see this. You must see this. You won’t believe it. Hurry up.’
‘What is it?’ she said. ‘Don’t hurt me. What is it?’
‘Honey, you must see this. I’m not going to hurt you. I’m sorry if I scared you. But you must come out here and see something.’
I went back into the other room and stood in front of the window and in a few minutes Nancy came in tying her robe. She looked out the window and said, ‘My God, they’re beautiful. Where’d they come from, Dan? They’re just beautiful.’
‘They must have gotten loose from around here somewhere,’ I said. ‘One of these farm places. I’ll call the sheriff’s department pretty soon and let them locate the owners. But I wanted you to see this first.’
‘Will they bite?’ she said. ‘I’d like to pet that one there, that one that just looked at us. I’d like to pat that one’s shoulder. But I don’t want to get bitten. I’m going outside.’
‘I don’t think they’ll bite,’ I said. ‘They don’t look like the kind of horses that’ll bite. But put a coat on if you’re going out there; it’s cold.’
I put my coat on over my pyjamas and waited for Nancy. Then I opened the front door and we went outside and walked into the yard with the horses. They all looked up at us. Two of them went back to pulling up grass. One of the other horses snorted and moved back a few steps, and then it too went back to pulling up grass and chewing, head down. I rubbed the forehead of one horse and patted its shoulder. It kept chewing. Nancy put out her hand and began stroking the mane of another horse. ‘Horsey, where’d you come from?’ she said. ‘Where do you live and why are you out tonight, Horsey?’ she said and kept stroking the horse’s mane. The horse looked at her and blew through its lips and dropped its head again. She patted its shoulder.
‘I guess I’d better call the sheriff,’ I said.
‘Not yet,’ she said. ‘Not for a while yet. We’ll never see anything like this again. We’ll never, never have horses in our front yard again. Wait a while yet, Dan.’
A little later, Nancy was still out there moving from one horse to another, patting their shoulders and stroking their manes, when one of the horses moved from the yard into the driveway and walked around the car and down the driveway toward the road, and I knew I had to call.
In a little while the two sheriff’s cars showed up with their red lights flashing in the fog and a few minutes later a fellow with a sheepskin coat driving a pick-up with a horse trailer behind it. Now the horses shied and tried to get away and the man with the horse trailer swore and tried to get a rope around the neck of one horse.
‘Don’t hurt it!’ Nancy said.
We went back in the house and stood behind the window and watched the deputies and the rancher work on getting the horses rounded up.
‘I’m going to make some coffee,’ I said. ‘Would you like some coffee, Nancy?’
‘I’ll tell you what I’d like,’ she said. ‘I feel high Dan. I feel like I’m loaded. I feel like, I don’t know, but I like the way I’m feeling. You put on some coffee and I’ll find us some music to listen to on the radio and then you can build up the fire again. I’m too excited to sleep.’
So we sat in front of the fire and drank coffee and listened to an all-night radio station from Eureka and talked about the horses and then talked about Richard, and Nancy’s mother. We danced. We didn’t talk about the present situation at all. The fog hung outside the window and we talked and were kind with one another. Toward daylight I turned off the radio and we went to bed and made love.
The next afternoon, after her arrangements were made and her suitcases packed, I drove her to the little airport where she would catch a flight to Portland and then transfer to another airline that would put her in Pasco late that night.
‘Tell your mother I said hello. Give Richard a hug for me and tell him I miss him,’ I said. ‘Tell him I send love.’
‘He loves you too,’ she said. ‘You know that. In any case, you’ll see him in the fall, I’m sure.’
‘Goodbye,’ she said and reached for me. We held each other. ‘I’m glad for last night,’ she said. ‘Those horses. Our talk. Everything. It helps. We won’t forget that,’ she said. She began to cry.
‘Write me, will you?’ I said. ‘I didn’t think it would happen to us,’ I said. ‘All those years. I never thought so for a minute. Not us.’
‘I’ll write,’ she said. ‘Some big letters. The biggest you’ve ever seen since I used to send you letters in high school.’
‘I’ll be looking for them,’ I said.
Then she looked at me again and touched my face. She turned and moved across the tarmac toward the plane.
Go, dearest one, and God be with you.
She boarded the plane and I stayed around until its jet engines started and, in a minute, the plane began to taxi down the runway. It lifted off over Humboldt Bay and soon became a speck on the horizon.
I drove back to the house and parked in the driveway and looked at the hoofprints of the horses from last night. There were deep impressions in the grass, and gashes, and there were piles of dung. Then I went into the house and, without even taking off my coat, went to the telephone and dialled Susan’s number.
Copyright © 1999 by Tess Gallagher, reprinted electronically with permission of The Wylie Agency LLC
Image © Danny Lyon / Magnum Photos