May 152010
 

Herewith it’s a huge pleasure to introduce my friend  Bill Gaston, a writer of poignant and sometimes Rabelaisian family stories, plays, novels, and a fine sports memoir Midnight Hockey. He teaches creative writing at the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island (way to the left if you’re looking at a map of Canada). “The Night Window” can be found in print in Bill’s story collection Gargoyles. It’s a story I know well because I included it in Best Canadian Stories the last time I edited the annual anthology (during my ten years as editor, I picked Bill three times).

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The Night Window

By Bill Gaston

 

Tyler’s librarian mother has brought two home for him. He hefts them, drops them onto his bed. One is on fly fishing. The second is Crime and Punishment. Tyler suspects Dostoevsky is a writer he will read only if made to, for instance if it’s the only book he brings on this camping trip.

Tyler knows that what he is actually weighing here is his degree of insubordination. Yesterday his mother’s boyfriend–Kim–went through all their gear, inspecting wool sweaters and cans of food. Peering into Tyler’s hardware store plastic bag he shook his head and pointed in at the new reading-light with its giant dry cell battery.

“It’s a natural-light camping trip,” he said, unpointing his finger to waggle it, naughty-naughty, in Tyler’s face. Tyler saw how he could fall to an easy hate of his mother’s boyfriend, except that Kim was just always trying to be funny. His mother had explained this early on.

“Umm…no lights?” his mother began, half-coming to Tyler’s defense. “If I have to pee in the middle of the night? Kim, you want some on you?”

It was this kind of statement (which had Kim laughing over-loud) that made Tyler turn away blank faced, that made him not want to go camping, and let his mother go wherever she wanted without him. It must be exactly this sort of statement that offends her co-workers at the library; it’s the reason she fits nowhere, and dates someone like Kim Lynch.

Natural light. Why, he thinks, plucking up the Dostoevsky, should he take orders from Kim Lynch anyway? Kim has red hair and see-through skin, is short and muscular–even his round face acts like a muscle. Tyler’s mother is at least an inch taller, and so thin that Tyler knows he will be thin for life too. And, “Kim.” His mother should reconsider on grounds of name alone. Tyler secretly agrees with him on this business of natural light, how its spirit probably goes with the quiet of fly fishing. But Tyler doesn’t want to take orders. If there’s one thing he’s learned about his mother it’s that no one that age–no one–knows what’s going on and everything is up for grabs. At first this depressed him, then not. Like in the animal world, it’s a big jungle-mix of hunger and wits and power. Accepting this is the difference between turning adult and remaining a child, which is how he explained it to his mother a month ago. She listened attentively, relishing his braininess and such, then rose from her kitchen chair, patted his shoulder, said, “I have been released from my duties as a mother,” and left the room. His mother tries to be funny much of the time too.


Tyler tries to read Dostoevsky during the drive, which is three hours north then an hour west on gravel to a lake. Kim’s SUV is not as roomy as one is led to believe from the street, where its design suggests shoulders and size. Tyler is forced to listen to Kim being forced to listen to his mother’s harangue about SUVs polluting twice as much as transportation needs to and how their owners never drive them up impossible mountains like they do in every ad on TV. Kim is sweetly pleased for he gets to say, “The word is ‘off-road.’ That is what we’re doing–we’re going ‘off-road.’” But Tyler mostly agrees with her. It’s wrong to contaminate fly-fishing with an SUV. Fly-fishers should walk.

In any case reading is difficult three feet from his mother and her new sexual partner. He has seen Kim, even while driving, glance down at her breasts. This morning, loading the car, when they thought Tyler wasn’t looking they performed a quick leering pantomime of zipping two sleeping bags together. Even their discussions of which gas station or favorite chocolate bar or how much sugar in the diet or is beer the same kind of sugar or are the Republicans trying to take over the world or blindly receiving it by default–here in the SUV all of his mother’s lilts of voice sound to Tyler like minor variations on one basic sexual position. All this veiled eagerness makes him want to be home alone.

Why is he here? Mothers don’t go camping with relatively new boyfriends and ask the 16-yr-old son along. The fly-fishing was the convenient excuse–Kim, you can teach Tyler how to fly-fish. But Tyler sees that she doesn’t love Kim all that much, not in the way he’s seen her with other boyfriends, she as obvious as a puppy panting over doggy-dish dreams of a nice nuclear family. He has seen her want some men that badly, where eventually she takes the deep hopeful breath and offers Tyler up as part of the package, hauling him out like some 130-pound arm she’s been hiding behind her back. It isn’t like that with Kim though. So what is this about? Why is he along?

It seems that his mother has decided to be his friend. And that she sees this trip to be exactly this: Three friends, going camping. Tyler wonders if anything could be more naive.


“Tyler? Here it is. It’s right around this long bend.”

“Here what is?” Tyler takes his face out of the book. She’s talking to him and he’s finally been pulled in by Dostoevsky, whom he has decided is basically an entertaining neurotic. Taken a step further it would be paranoid comedy.

“The giant elf! The twenty-foot face! The one that really freaks me out!”

They round a bend and Tyler keeps his head out of Russian neuroses long enough to see that whatever it is his mother wants him to see is gone. She pretends to wail like a child. Kim knew of the statue too and recalls now that it was removed because of cars slowing to look at it and causing accidents.

His mother turns to Tyler. “He had this giant pointy hat. One arm pointed right at you, there in your car, and the other pointed at their driveway. It was a go-cart place or something. But the thing was forty feet tall! It was totally unnecessary and really, really ugly. I mean it was all face! It was like–”

“It was really stupid looking,” Kim affirms.

“–it was like some kid made it out of paper machier.  It used to really freak me out.” She gives Kim a look. “When I was Tyler’s age, it used to really freak me out.”

His mother means drugs. Kim gives her a sly smile back, as though he really understands. Tyler can tell he really doesn’t.

It’s maybe the main thing he hates about his mother, how everyone she meets has to be informed what an extreme hippy she was. Tyler has several times been with his mother and one of her old friends and they’ll see some rainbow-clad extrovert skip past in bare feet with bubbles drifting from her dreadlocks or something, and Tyler will snort, and the friend will say, Well, you should have seen your mother back then. At this his mother laughs and revels as if the sun is on her face.

His mother doesn’t have many friends left from “back then.” Tyler thinks they avoid her. He’s told her about it, how “back then” looks like the only thing that was ever important to her and she can’t shut up about it. Even the way she can’t shut up about it. Sometimes she says “back in the daze,” pronouncing it with a grimace so the spelling is understood and implies how much she used to get stoned. And Tyler will watch the friend answer with that first nervous stoned-memory smile and then it’s all smiling one-up-manship, competing little stories about seeing personality in foliage, etc.

One thing in particular that his mother says sickens him. If someone asks her where she came from, her answer, “I came in through the bathroom window,” Tyler knows was in a Beatles’ song. It makes him shrink and wince. He’s heard her say it at least twice. It sums up what’s worst in her, how she makes like there’s this huge mystery to her when it’s clear to him and everyone else that there’s no mystery at all. None. Where she’s really from is Vancouver. She pronounces it Vankewver.

What Tyler figures is that she never really was a hippy. Real hippies were too damaged to read. She went to university, she’s a librarian with staff under her. Now, when people see her coming, with that old-fashioned smile on her face, they see a librarian who’s still trying to be someone she never was.


After Campbell River they leave the highway to drive smaller and smaller logging roads, then reach a clearing beside a lake. A home-made picnic table marks it as a place to camp. They set up two tents about ten feet apart, and throw sleeping bags into each. When they’re done, Tyler’s mother points and says, “Hey, not fair. Tyler has a tent all to himself,” and Kim gamely smiles and pretends to be annoyed at this too.

Leaving his mother to sort through the food, Kim takes Tyler off to fly-fish. Tyler has spincast for trout before and he’s fair at it. Though he lacks biceps he has strength when needed. Kim leads him along a path for maybe 100 yards, saying nothing except the curious, “Not a lot of birds, eh?”

They emerge into another clearing at a small gravel beach. Tyler is disappointed to see another picnic table. This isn’t quite the wilderness spot he assumed. Searching the ground he notes the tell-tale curls of old line and the faded neon cardboard of fishing lure packs. Kim places the gear on the table and begins assembling the rods.

“These are cane,” he explains. “They’re the real thing.”

“Great,” Tyler says.

“We’ll try a nymph replica on yours, and I’ll start with a…with an alien express.”

“Sounds good.” He hears what he thinks is an owl, but knows it might be a dove, and doesn’t want to ask.

“So this is your first time, right?”

“Yes.”

“There’s no such thing as an ‘alien express.’ Made that one up.”

“Ah. Right.”

Kim laughs, possibly because Tyler doesn’t.

“I should have caught that,” Tyler says. “Didn’t sound much like a fly.”

“Gotta watch me Tyler, I’m fast.”

“I’ll try.”

Kim pulls off his long-sleeve shirt and they take their rods and wade into the lake on a finger of gravel. It’s extremely cold, but since Kim seems not to notice, Tyler is careful to step bravely. Kim begins to cast, describing the basic movements. The wrist, he explains, stays stiff. When he first learned, he says, he let his wrist “get into the game too much,” and it made the fly snap right off. “It landed right beside my leg.”

Tyler doesn’t like the sight of his mother’s boyfriend’s body. It’s compact, what you’d almost call little except that he has overt muscles and he wears a tight sleeveless shirt–well, a tank top–to show it all off. Plus on one shoulder a tattoo that reads “Digger.” Plus he has no grace. Casting, his arms look too short and his neck stiffens and he lurches like he’s throwing boulders at something he’s mad at. Reddish hairs drift out from under the muscle-shirt straps on his back.

Tyler tries a few casts. He can see he would improve if he ever spent the time. The breeze, though, stymies him while it doesn’t appear to affect Kim’s casts at all. But this breeze means no mosquitoes. All in all it’s a beautiful day. Tyler can see one snow-capped peak to the west.

“What’s ‘digger’ refer to?”

“Old friend.” Kim’s tone is the badly-acted tragic one that says, I don’t want to talk about it. But he adds, “We were in the military.”

“You were in the military?”

“I grew up in the Maritimes, gimme a break,” Kim says, and then laughs loudly.

And now Kim has hooked a trout. His face deadens and he is serious. It’s the first time Tyler has seen him like this, all business. You would swear he’s angry.


Over the next hour or so Kim catches three more rainbows which he deposits in the nest of ferns in his creel. Finally Tyler hooks one. It’s fun to play; it’s almost shocking on this thin rod. The fish looks maybe a foot long, exactly the same size as Kim’s, and as it splashes around Tyler’s knees Kim suggests they release it.

“Why?” asks Tyler. He’s horrified Kim will claim that this one’s too small, which would reveal far too much about the man his mother likes.

“Well, we have enough. Your mom brought that chili for tonight. All we need’s a little side dish.”

Tyler watches Kim gently unhook the trout with the needle-nose pliers he wears velcroed to his leg, his motions so expert that Tyler understands that of course Kim would know exactly how much trout everyone would want with chili. But Tyler sort of wanted to keep his trout and Kim should have asked him. Also, he doesn’t like to discover that, already having enough fish to eat, they’d simply been casting until Tyler caught one. He hates it that Kim has been waiting patiently for the unlucky dim-wit.


At the campsite his mother exclaims about the trout, which Kim has laid out on some fresher ferns. All agree how plump and bright and perfect they look.

“He got a few and I got a few,” Kim lies with no prompting and without looking at Tyler, as if he’s committing some kind of golden self-sacrifice.

“He got four and I got one,” says Tyler.

“We had a good time,” Kim offers.

Tyler’s mother murmurs something about their wide open eyes, about their expressions not changing even when you kill them.

“Can you have a beer, there, Tyler?” Kim asks him in a stage-voice, even cupping his hand to one side of his mouth. Winking as if to say, You can have a beer no matter what your mother says, he pops the rings of two cans and places them on the table. Then he removes a fish-knife from a sheath on his belt along with a sharpening stone from its own little case also on the belt.

Tyler is still angry with Kim but has said nothing, preferring instead simply not to speak to him at all. On the path back to camp Kim had shouted “Cougar!” and scared the hell out of him. It was such an easy juvenile prank that it wasn’t funny at all, despite Kim’s minute of laughter and pointing. Tyler is dreading tonight. How long can you sit around a campfire with your mother and a man named Kim Lynch?

“He can have one beer,” his mother says, just as over-loud, though she is serious.

Something in him wishes she had said no to the beer. But mostly Tyler wonders if anyone besides him is aware of the absurdity of this discussion at all, how since he turned fifteen his mother, convinced of his social awkwardness, encouraged him to “have a couple and relax” at any of the infrequent parties he went to, whether there would be alcohol there or not. In any case he has had his share of beer; once he had two plus a shot of rum.

“I don’t want one,” Tyler says. He has turned his back on the opened beer can and is about to add that beer doesn’t seem to go with the art of fly-fishing, but then Kim would have to respond to this, and Tyler doesn’t want him to talk.


It’s by far the worst thing his mother has ever said. They are sitting around the picnic table, finished with chili and trout, which was excellent together, and they are quite jolly. Tyler has silently gone to the cooler himself, twice, and he is finishing his second beer. His mother and Kim have had more than that. They have been trading repulsive romantic glances and such for a few minutes now, and then she says it.

“Time for you to take a little walk, Tyler.”

His mother looks at him like a buddy. She might as well have thrown him a shitty wink. Tyler is so tight in the stomach that he can’t talk.

He goes to his tent for a few deep breaths and a sweater. Maybe socks and runners instead of these sandals. No. Maybe the Dostoevsky. No. With a foot he kicks his pillow and is surprised by what is under it. He stoops. Still in the hardware store bag, his forbidden reading light. His mother has smuggled it along and hidden it here for him.

Emerging from his tent, deliberately not doing up the bug zipper, he sees Kim at the picnic table, red-faced, stiffly repositioning the clean dishes, his pinched and painful smile.

Tyler hates only his mother who, not looking at him, hums a tuneless song. Tyler walks past her, close, hitting her hair with his elbow. He bends at the cooler and grabs three cans of beer. Two he stuffs in his pockets and the other he pops open.

“Tyler could go fishing,” Kim says helpfully to the dishes.

Tyler tilts the beer can back as he walks away. He doesn’t know why he does it, but he pats Kim’s SUV on what would have been its fat ass.


Aside from the one to the fishing spot there are no real paths, so Tyler strikes out along the vehicle track that will eventually reach the logging road. This narrow track is only two ruts for tires, with stiff grass and shrubs growing two-feet high in the middle, which, as they drove in, loudly brushed the underbelly of the SUV, making Kim close his eyes and hiss, “Yes, there! Ohh yes!” and so on, wriggling in his seat as if this was where all the scratching was taking place.

Walking, sipping beer, Tyler decides that slapping the SUV is exactly something his father would have done. He has never met his father, and hardly thinks of him–well, how can he?–except when he does something slightly surprising. Grabbing these beer was the father-in-him too. When Tyler used to bring up the subject of his father, his mother wouldn’t speak of him except in the vaguest generalities–he was unstable, he was too serious, he was very thin. It was this suspicious lack of detail plus a certain stricken look in her eye that told him his mother possibly wasn’t sure who his father was. So Tyler stopped asking. In fact, not asking is exactly how his father would have handled it. Sometimes, when Tyler is this angry at his mother, like now, he imagines this is how his father felt about her too and is why he didn’t stay.

The forest is dense and the sunset’s light is more dark than dappled. The road is narrow and not ditched and the trees are close–if he walks like an arms-out Jesus, Jesus with a beer can in each hand, Tyler can almost touch leaves on either side. He likes the idea, the threat, of a predator. A predator keeps you alert. The lack of man-eating predators in England is partly what’s wrong with the overall character of the English, a favorite author of his wrote. Getting attacked is less likely than getting hit by lightning, but truly there are bears and cougars here, perhaps twenty feet away, watching him walk. As far as cougars go, he knows not to make quick or skittery movements. In other words, don’t act like prey. In the same way that, sleeping in a new bedroom in another artsy old house they’ve rented, he sometimes dreads yet wants to see a ghost, he now half-wills a mountain lion to make itself known to him. He would love to see its calm face.


Tyler reaches another logging road and turns left, which is uphill and not the way they had come. He wants to see what lies beyond. He walks and walks. He thinks of nothing he’s left behind him. For a while, he visualizes himself very tall, which changes the road’s gravel to huge boulders, and he is a Tree Ent, his strides huge and ungainly, his style of walking not just mind over matter but wisdom over matter. As another beer can empties, he places it upright in full view at the side of the road.

He hasn’t cried and he won’t. He knows he’s really all she has in her life. He has just realized that she truly doesn’t know what will hurt him. That’s how naive and trusting she is–she thinks he is that mature, that above-it-all. That’s how stupid she is–she thinks he is that smart.

He’s a few miles from Kim’s ass-tickling road when he turns another corner and there, with a driveway of sorts leading to it, is a log cabin. The cabin’s roof is so thick with moss that at first Tyler sees it as thatch, the quaintly rounded English kind. Behind the house a shed of equal size looks ready to collapse in on itself. The wood of both buildings is unpainted, perhaps never-painted. There is no car. No lights are on. Tyler sees no electric wires leading to the house, then remembers he has been walking for miles without seeing power poles at all.

Tyler looks around him, sees only trees and hears only the wind in trees higher up the slope. No cars passed him all evening. He really is very alone here. He is in no danger whatsoever so there is no reason to be afraid of anything at all. He has had five cans of beer. He doesn’t bother to walk quietly as he approaches the cabin. Why should he? He walks up, cups his hands over his eyes, leans against the glass to look.

On open shelves sit colourful rows of canned goods, and boxes of herbal tea and tins of this and that. A good, or at least big, stereo system sits in the corner. He sees electric light fixtures. Maybe there’s a generator in the shed. Tyler wonders if there’s indoor plumbing. He will look in other windows. Passing the door he puts his hand on the knob and it turns. Why not? His father would look around too. He is one step inside when he hears– The black pickup is new and quiet enough to have been muffled by wind in the treetops and by Tyler’s criminal excitement. It rolls up and turns into the head of the driveway before Tyler can move. He can hear shouts inside the truck even before the passenger door opens and a second later, though the truck is still moving, the driver’s side opens too.

Tyler is running. No decision, he is instantly behind the house and into the trees. Maybe one of them looked a little fat. Maybe he saw tattoos, maybe he didn’t, but they are the type. One shouts a single Hey, that’s all, and he wishes they were shouting at him from a distance but God he can hear the crunching twigs and the grunts not far behind him.

He’s well into the bush now. He has been stabbed in the ribs by a broken branch and yelled because of it. He has tripped twice but is hardly on the ground before he is full speed again. He’s not sure his father ran. He leaps a small creek and, absurdly, seeing a hint of depth wonders if it might hold small trout. He lands beside a pale skunk cabbage and smells its garbage smell. He hesitates long enough to hear the crashings behind him. Maybe they are more distant. No, he hears crashing to his right now too. Tyler goes left, dodging trees, plunging through vines, more trees, saplings caught under his armpits and scraping them. He sees the light of a clearing and heads for it–maybe he’s faster than them on open ground. He hears the men shouting at each other or maybe at him. He plunges into the light of the clearing and he instantly goes down choking as a ghost gets him sharp by the neck and ankles both.

Tyler lies thrashing, unable to breathe. He doesn’t think he’s dying. He can breathe a little now, and a little more. The low sun is in his eyes. He doesn’t care about the men anymore, though he hears them coming, walking now, crunching underbrush, breathing hard.

“He went right through the deer fence,” one says.

“He broke the deer fence,” the other adds.

“Did he get a shock?”

“I don’t know.”

“Hey,” one of them asks, louder, almost on him now, “did you get a shock?” The voice sounds concerned but also just curious.

Two pairs of legs are at his head. Tyler manages to sit up. He rubs his throat and coughs. No one touches him.

“What the fuck, man?” one of them asks, and Tyler looks into the setting sun.

The other voice laughs insincerely and says, “Well I guess he found it.”

Both men, standing over Tyler, catching their breath like him, seem mostly nervous now.


The generator is down so they sit in the soft light of strategically placed candles. “Welcome to black mass,” one of them, the ponytailed one, said as he began lighting them. Tyler is no longer afraid. He is used to this one’s humour–on the walk back he joked about both Deliverance and cannibalism–all supposed to put Tyler at ease, he could see that. He also joked about Tyler being the skinniest cop they’d ever seen. Early on they told him their names, which Tyler only half-heard. The ponytail one was Bob, Ben, Burt, something, and the other’s was longer. When talking to one another they didn’t use names. They seemed very close.

The non-ponytailed one is almost fat and has long hair too, and a mustache, an old-fashioned, biker kind. Both men wear really good sneakers, maybe that’s how they kept up with him. They look forty or maybe even older.

“Another warm one?” the fat one asks, wincing an apology as he asks it.

“No thanks.” Tyler has barely touched his first. It’s in an unmarked green plastic bottle and, though he’s never had homemade beer before, he can taste that that’s what it is.

“The tea’s pretty close.” The fat one lifts the kettle from the woodstove, as if in doing this he can assess how close it is to boiling. Well, maybe he can, Tyler sees, maybe he can feel water-roil through the handle.

“Man, we really need another screen,” the ponytail one complains. Only one window has a screen, and with the woodstove on he’d wanted to open the door for a cross-draft, but at night apparently the bugs are awful.

Out the windows, it’s completely dark. Tyler pictures his mother and Kim with insects awful around them. His mother refuses to use repellant. They will have a fire going by now. Natural light. Tyler is all they are talking about. They are a mix of afraid and angry and repentant. They know he has no flashlight and beyond their little fire all is dark. His mother, of course, is mostly afraid. How will little Tyler get back from his little walk. He remembers her face as she said this, as she said it not looking at Tyler but at Kim, her face pink with beer and naughty, shitty fun.

He’s been here in the cabin for at least an hour now. His ribs feel better. The fat one’s salve is amazingly soothing. His “famous elf balm” he called it, and Tyler didn’t want to let him try it on him but he was still afraid of them then. The fat one said it was made of wild beeswax and sap from Douglas fir and chocolate lily, something his sister made and sold.

“Sorry,” Tyler asks now. “What are your names again?”

“Bab,” says the ponytail one, pointing to his chest. “And that’s Lawrence.”

“It’s..Bab?” Tyler asks.

“One of those jokes that sticks,” Bab explains.

“You sure you don’t want a ride back?” Lawrence asks, lifting the tea kettle again.

“Not yet. A while maybe.”

“You don’t think they’re worried?”

Tyler shrugs and says nothing.

“How’s the leg now?”

“It’s okay.” Tyler lifts his right leg for them and twirls the sandaled foot, which hurts to do, maybe enough to make him limp. He doesn’t remember hurting it. Maybe when he jumped the creek. Maybe when the deer fence got him.

At the marijuana field, after they’d helped him to his feet, their main concerns were, one, that he might come back and steal their plants, or, two, that he’d tell the Vietnamese and they would. “And hang our balls from trees,” Bab had joked. Tyler was convincing in his apologies and also in his assurances that he didn’t smoke pot, or know anyone who even knew anyone who was Vietnamese. He was only here camping with his mother. This fact seemed to sum him up for them because both Bab and Lawrence quietly exhaled, Ahhh, at ease now. Tyler went on to say that he’d gone walking, got sort of lost, found their place and was looking for a phone to call his mother’s cell. Both men said Ahhh again, and they didn’t seem angry any more.

Getting to their cabin, putting a warm beer in his hand, Lawrence had gone for the elf balm and a wash cloth while Bab came up with an idea to keep Tyler quiet about their farm. He had tried, for a minute, to act tough.

“Okay,” he said, as Lawrence appeared with damp cloth and the flat tin of salve, “I want to see some I.D.”

“My I.D.?”

“Let’s see some.”

Tyler took his wallet out and Bab told Lawrence to get him a pen. Bab found Tyler’s social insurance card and library card and Lawrence handed Bab a pen. Bab sent Lawrence back for some paper.

“Okay, Tyler,” Bab said, reading the name, serious. “We know who you are and where you live.” In the background, Lawrence snorted at this. He opened the flat tin of balm, smelled it, poked a gentle finger in and then rubbed some on his sunburned nose.

“So if we see any plants missing, we know who. And we know where. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“And if, and if the cops come, we’ll know…” Bab looked around, stumped, a smile breaking out.

“We’ll know who to yell at from prison,” Lawrence offered.

“That’s right,” Bab told Tyler, smiling, stab-pointing at his face.

“I’m really not going to tell anybody,” Tyler said.

“Look,” said Bab, folding the piece of paper and putting it in his shirt pocket, “we’re being nice to you, right?”

“Right.”

“I mean we’re just all good humans here so just don’t tell anyone, ‘cause we’ll get hurt, okay?”

“I really won’t.”

“Good. Thanks.” Bab looked at him closely. “How old are you anyway? Fourteen?”

“Sixteen.”

“You want a ride back to the lake?”

“No, not yet. I can’t. Quite yet.” Tyler hesitated then told them why, and they laughed, but not unsympathetically. Lawrence gave him a little squeeze on the shoulder, and then frizbee’d the tin of balm onto his lap as he walked past.

When Tyler asked if they lived here all the time, he was told it was their “summer residence,” and that they farm–their word–here in the summer and tour in the winter. Lawrence then explained that “toured” sounded grandiose, that actually it was more traveling than touring, meaning playing music and getting paid for it. They always went to warm places. They’d recorded an early independent album and in the last decade two CDs but, no, there’s no way Tyler would have heard of them. But Bab passed him a CD case and there they were on the cover. They were “Jones.” No, they weren’t brothers. It was a name, said Bab, “that seemed cool eighty years ago.” All this led to Tyler saying he’d love to hear their music, but with the generator down a CD was impossible, which led to them rooting around in back for what instruments they had there and, after apologizing that this wasn’t their good gear, they began to play. First they gave him a CD to keep, he has it here under his hand and he keeps picking it up and studying it. Bab and Lawrence are younger on the cover, but it’s them.

Tyler figures he’s been gone a few hours now. Bab and Lawrence are into their second song when Tyler decides that these two are the kindest men he has ever met. They seem to genuinely like that he’s here. Bab plays guitar and Lawrence a mandolin, the sound of which Tyler describes to himself as rows of tiny angel bells. First they played “Turn, Turn, Turn,” harmonizing beautifully, softer and gentler than in the old Byrds’ song, and Bab’s guitar–he explains–is tuned to sound like a twelve-string. This second song is their own composition and it also forefronts their harmonies, which they love to perform and which are truly sweet. One of the lines in the sad chorus is, “Just another waya prayin’.”

Tyler finishes the gigantic bowl of tortilla chips in front of him. A hand-carved, clover-shaped bowl holds three kinds of dip. The bean dip is the best he’s ever had. Lawrence insisted on heating it up a little first, saying it’s three times as good warm, something about “luring out the earth in it.” Tyler also has a glass of homemade blackberry wine in front of him. It sounded good but it isn’t and he’s had only a sip. It sits beside the full beer. Lawrence and Bab have been puffing marijuana from a small pipe, Bab offering it once with raised eyebrows but not asking again. It doesn’t seem to affect them other than they’ve stopped talking much at all and sometimes they chuckle at jokes Tyler doesn’t catch. They seem to talk with their music. Once during the last song they were staring at each other quizzically, then Bab dipped his head and did a little something with a bass string, and Lawrence laughed and said, “That?”and this was the only word in the conversation.

His mother, he knows, would love them. She would. There is no doubt in Tyler’s mind that she would love these two guys. His mother would love everything in this cabin.

They are into their fifth or sixth song when Tyler sees what he’s been waiting all evening to see. Kim’s muscular high-beams violate the whole forest with false daylight then turn into the drive and momentarily hurt his eyes.

She’s been a long time coming. He wonders how many wrong logging roads were taken, if they fought much, and how difficult she found the sporadic track of beer cans he’d left for her beside the road. He understands that his father probably didn’t leave any cans.

The SUV stops behind the pickup mid-way up the drive, a door opens and but doesn’t close and the beam of Tyler’s reading light bounces toward him–his mother must be running.

Tyler bets the candles must look pretty eerie from out there. The reading light runs nearer then slows and stops at the biggest window and there is his mother’s face, dim, pressed to the glass. She’s alone and frantic and–compared to the good things going on here in this cabin–of another world.

—Bill Gaston

 

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