“A short trip,” Harry had emailed their friends. He didn’t use the word “vacation.” Since he and Sarah had each retired, he wasn’t sure the word was appropriate. Vacation from what? He and Sarah were still the same no matter where they were.
He’d been lucky to get a room at an overpriced motel in West Yellowstone for two nights in August after calling six in a row.
He was thankful that the flight was uneventful, except for the brief summer storm when rain pinged in crazy angles off the airplane wing and the coffee shuddered in paper cups. Sarah was calm through it, smiling as she looked out through the airplane window, looking as if she were on the bumper car ride at a children’s amusement park.
Why they had never been to Yellowstone was a mystery. It was the most active geothermal area in the world on a dormant, not dead, volcano, with over 1,000 earthquakes a year. An eruption would be the 10th biggest disaster the world has ever seen, he thought he remembered hearing.
Why had they never gone when the girls were little? Or when they’d gotten to college age? It didn’t matter, he told himself. What mattered was that they were here now.
The seat belt light went out and they stood up, assuming the slightly bent posture that permitted them to stretch without bumping their heads on the ceiling panels. Paying not to have to carry luggage on board with them was another annoyance but the upside was he could just focus on Sarah for now.
He took her hand. “Got your purse, honey?’
She nodded and patted it. The small beige travel bag, pint-size bottle of water tipping ever so slightly forward and down, was over one shoulder.
He leaned over. “Let me?” He picked up the strap and dropped it down again, bandolier style across her neck. He pushed the water bottle firmly down into its pouch. Then he grabbed the black carry-on bag.
The rental car was a white Ford Fiesta. Safe enough, Harry hoped.
The drive from Idaho Falls to West Yosemite took them past towns whose buildings were lifted from a ’50s movie set, main streets full of dust and windows with “for lease” signs.
“How’re you doing?” he asked.
She turned and smiled at him, a reddened pressure mark just above her right eyebrow where she’d rested her forehead against the passenger side window. “Fine.”
Her smile creased both sides of her face into pleats of skin. Her lips were dry, an artifact of airplane air. Her hair was more salt than pepper and cut pixie style. He missed her long hair, but she had told him 10 years ago that long hair on middle-aged women made them look as if they didn’t want to grow up let alone old. She’d gotten soft, almost doughy, in the last year, although the doctor’s scale still showed her at 122 pounds and 5 feet 4 inches in height. Always pale, she was near white, not a tan line to be seen. They both needed to be out in the fresh air more.
“This is nice,” she added, pointing out the window. “Farms. Look, a cow.” Years ago, Sarah would have said, “Look, girls, a cow.” Years ago.
West Yellowstone was there for the tourists. There was no other reason for its existence. Gas stations, motels, restaurants and souvenir shops. This was an accretion of creature necessities and unnecessities, layered up to the entrance gate to the park. Parents standing in line with children out the door at the 31 Flavors ice-cream store, everyone in shorts and T-shirts. Everyone looked hot, deflated, as if the hours before 4:30 p.m. had conspired against them somehow. Maybe it’s just the altitude, he thought to himself, 7,500 feet up, people get tired. They’re not used to it. He’d have to remember that for himself and Sarah. Neither of them should be drained, especially not her.
“Sarah…” She turned, her green eyes graying next to the white hoodie framing her face.
“Are you hot? Hungry?” Conversations had become questions. Are you hungry, yes or no? Are you hot, yes or no? A penny for your thoughts. Do you have any? Do you remember them? He must have sighed. She put her hand on his thigh, a touch so light it was barely there.
“Oh, a little hungry, I guess, Harry.”
Room 124 was serviceable, air-conditioned, with a print of a photograph of Old Faithful doing its thing. White, over-washed towels in the bathroom along with a half-roll of toilet paper. An almost new blue shower mat lay rolled next to the tub. He unrolled it, put it down on the tub floor and stepped on it, feeling the little pressure cups latch firmly onto the surface. OK, he thought, OK.
In the 15 minutes that it had taken him to pull in, check in, get the keys and move in, almost-black cumulus clouds had scuttled over them in a mass takeover of the blue sky. He and Sarah were in for a good, old-fashioned, summer thunderstorm.
“Woow,” she’d say to the girls when they were little. “Look, look at that lightning. Count, one, two, three…OK, so?”
“Four miles, Mommy,” Stephie would reply, gripping Sarah’s hand.
“My turn next,” said Terry.
Maine, that was the trip to Maine, when they stayed at the farmhouse bed-and- breakfast. The girls woke at 7, unsure what to do without a television set to watch. Stephie was frightened by the half-a-dozen chickens when they crowded around her in the yard looking for food. Sarah lifted her up high, then Stephie’s legs grappled her mother’s waist and her arms wrapped around Sarah’s neck, as she half-laughed and half-sobbed. How old was Stephie then? Four or 5, he guessed. He shook his head slightly, as if to gently knock the date loose from wherever it was.
“What’s wrong?” Sarah looked at him, her nose slightly wrinkled up, the gesture suggesting that his inability to remember bothered her by osmosis.
“Do you remember…” He stopped, tried hard to restart the sentence, then plunged ahead. “When we took the girls to that farmhouse in Maine, Stephie was frightened by the chickens. That was their first thunderstorm. You taught them how to count to see how far away the lightning was.”
Sarah smiled. “Maybe.” She was trying to engage him, he could tell. She kept smiling and nodded.
“So I couldn’t remember how old they were. I mean Stephie was little enough for you to pick her right up.”
“Five and 7. It was the summer before she entered kindergarten. And Terry was worried about going into third grade. Some teacher she didn’t like, I think. Or she thought she didn’t like her. I mean, she’d never had her before.” Sarah gave her “really?” shrug.
He’d seen it thousands of times; that little moue of exasperation with the girls, him, life. Still it was better than the “whatever” Terry used so often in her teens only to have it picked up by Stephie in her preteens. Though neither girl used it anymore; no, they were women now, all concern and suggestion when they talked to him on the phone or Skype.
“Great.” It was great. He smiled back. He should ask her something else, he thought. “Ahhh, how did the teacher thing work out?”
Sarah’s face clouded over, like a toddler before a tantrum. “I don’t remember, Harry.” She paused and took a deep breath. She held up a finger. He waited. She let her breath out slowly. “OK. But I do remember that kindergarten worked out fine, just fine. Are the girls calling tonight?”
“We can call them any time.” Harry patted his cellphone. Then he realized he hadn’t turned it back on after getting off the plane. No wonder he hadn’t had a call from Terry yet. He took the phone off airplane mode and watched three bars come up on the screen. No escape from cellphones, even here.
“Meantime, let’s try to get some dinner.” He had tensed up with the expectation of a conversation and the disappointment. Beer would help. “Better put on those all-weather jackets we brought.”
Harry pulled Sarah’s new purple jacket from the side pocket of her suitcase and shook it out. Purple was now her favorite color, in a changing array of new favorite things, like sweet gooey desserts, which she had never liked before.
He grabbed his windbreaker, held the door open for her, and led her to the sidewalk. The same families who’d been in shorts and T-shirts an hour before now had all varieties of Yellowstone sweatshirts and faded jeans on. The temperature had dropped maybe 25 degrees, not unheard of, he reminded himself, for nighttime above 7,000 feet. There was a brisk, damp breeze and a piney rain scent.
The rain that began as they walked to the restaurant filled the sidewalk cracks in less than a minute, falling in fat, soft drops. Both of them competently slipped the hoods out from the collars of their jackets and over their heads.
They ate early, before 5:30, which was how Sarah liked it now, even though it was still 4:30 for him, California time. Dinner was remarkable only for Sarah’s disinterest in any dessert. He dallied over his Coors, then ordered another one. A Dodgers and Rockies baseball game was on the flat-screen in the bar and he glanced at it with desultory interest. She smiled at every child she saw and they smiled back. That hadn’t changed. By the time they left the restaurant, the rain had stopped and the sky was clearing up.
The cellphone rang. “Hey, Ter,” he said when he raised it to his ear.
“Hi, Dad. Is everything OK?” Terry asked in a single nonstop breath.
“You haven’t answered the phone until now.” Slightly accusatory, in that “You are 15 minutes late, young man” parental voice she had acquired. From whom? Neither he nor Sarah had used that tone. Much? No, not at all. It wasn’t needed.
“Sorry.” He didn’t feel like explaining. “But we are fine. Just ate. Walking along back to the motel.”
“Fine.” Hadn’t he just said that?
“Dad,” her voice was wheedling now. “Sometimes your ‘fine’ is just not, well, specific enough. I mean, like, ‘How do I look in my prom dress?’ ‘Fine.’ ‘How’s the weather?’ ‘Fine.’ You know…” Her voice trailed off.
“Yes. OK. Your mom, and I can put her on the phone right now if you want, is smiling, walking after a nice summer shower and a decent meal. We will go back to the room and watch a little TV and then I’m sure she’ll go right to sleep and I’ll read for a while.” Miffed, he thought he sounded miffed.
He handed the phone to Sarah. “It’s Terry.”
“Terry?” Now Sarah sounded like another person who didn’t believe him. “Hi, baby girl.”
For the next several minutes, Sarah nodded, walked and occasionally uttered “Umm,” “OK” and “Really?” Terry was, he guessed, just talking to fill the time. She had no children, but could chatter about the phlebotomy lab she oversaw, the techs and nurses as if she were writing a soap opera. He noticed she didn’t say much about her husband, Dennis, ever. Not even when he asked her directly, which was rarely. He worked hard at letting his adult children be adults. And they should continue to let him be an adult since he’d been one for decades and felt he’d had a lot of practice at it. He’d try to share that with Terry the next time.
Sarah grabbed his jacket sleeve with the urgent grip of someone about to lose her footing. But instead of tripping, she shoved the phone back into his hand as he reached out toward her. She shook her head back and forth so hard her upper torso moved with her.
“What?” He could see tears forming at the edges of her eyes, like more rain.
“Mom!” He heard Terry’s voice and put the phone back to his ear. “Stephie and I have talked about this. Really, it would be so much better if you and Dad just sold the house and moved closer to one of us.”
“This is Dad,” he said. “Mom just gave the phone back to me. Terry, honey….” He paused. As man living among women, avoiding female eruption was ingrained. “Ahh, this is a bad time to discuss that. And it’s our decision, your mom’s and mine.” He could hear Terry breathing. Meantime, Sarah’s head stopped shaking but she continued to cling to him, the pressure of her body bringing them both to a full stop on the sidewalk.
“Goodbye, Terry. We’ll talk to you tomorrow.” He turned the phone off. Sarah let go of his arm and he wrapped it around her, trying to change clinging to hugging. She calmed; he could feel her heart beating as she relaxed against him.
“It’s OK,” he said.
“My home is what I know,” she said. On what he thought of as her bad days, Sarah would sit in the family room on the couch for hours, unless he got her up and moving. Or she would walk around the kitchen opening and shutting the drawers and cabinets as if trying to rememorize the location and contents. He asked her once.
“That is what I’m trying to do,” she laughed, then bit her lip and returned to the living room.
By the time they got back to the motel, unpacked and watched the tail end of CSI: Miami, he could see the grayish blue shadows under her eyes, as if her face was turning to ash from her eyes down. He turned off the TV.
“I’ll just read awhile,” he said. Five pages, or whatever they called them on Kindle, later, he looked over and she was sleeping. Laying on her back, her lips slightly parted, gravity tugging back on her face, smoothing out the fault lines, she looked 50, at most. That seemed young to him now and far away from this end of days.
Harry wondered why neurologists specialized in gerontology when there was nothing they could do but say, “We think right now that it’s just mild cognitive impairment and not Alzheimer’s. Yes, at 62 she’s a little young for it but….” And, “No, it’s not inevitable that it’ll be Alzheimer’s.” And, “What are the chances?” Shrugging, palms up, “Keep an eye on her, but don’t count symptoms every day…” Meaning what? Count symptoms once a month on a specific day?
He was happy he’d spent his life as an architect, with plans and specifications and the knowledge that the building would stand on the ground where he could look at it, if he wanted to. No one ever came into his office wondering how long it would be before their wife didn’t recognize them.
Now, her thoughts went over and over the same insignificant lapse of memory that anyone could have had at her age or his. “I meant to turn on the dishwasher before we went to bed last night,” she’d say, tearing up over morning coffee. “I meant to do it and I didn’t.”
That caused him to speak in a bitter tone to her, his “drop-dead” voice she had called it when they were young and their tempers flared out at each other like heat-seeking missiles. He regretted his outbursts for days and wondered if he should be the one on antidepressants.
Both of them woke at 7:30 with the sunlight slipping in between the drapes and the wall and drifting over their faces. The sky was sharply blue.
After a cup of coffee brewed in the room and a bran muffin from Starbucks that they shared, Harry tucked Sarah into the car. “Hold this,” he said as he handed a carefully folded AAA map of Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons to her. Terry had advised him not to rely on Google Maps or any mobile device in the park. And why take a chance? He could still read a map.
“It’s a big park. Lots to see. I thought we’d start at the Lower Geyser Basin and work our way over to Old Faithful by 11 or so. Stop at the Old Faithful Lodge for lunch.” He’d always wanted to see that building, one of the first in the national park series by Robert Reamer, allegedly designed when he was drunk.
Sarah gripped her Canon Sure Shot like a talisman. “Phew,” she said when the earth’s burps released gassy smells. At the Celestine Pool, they paused to consider the fool-heartiness of the young man who, in 1981, dove in to save his dog, only to die himself of severe burns.
“What we do to save what we love,” Sarah said and sighed.
They rested in the car, both doors open for the fresh air.
“Honey, you are awfully tired already. Maybe we should skip Old Faithful.”
“We will never be here again. I….” Her voice trailed off. He waited. “I have to fill up the growing empty spaces.” She pointed to her head, then lifted her other hand and made the twirly motions with her hands that, when they were children, had meant someone was crazy. “There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza…” she sang monotonously.
“Stop.” He felt hurt, as if someone were making fun of his wife, someone he thought he knew but didn’t quite recognize.
Sarah patted his thigh. “It’s OK,” she said. “The trip is what I needed.” Leaning over, she kissed his cheek softly. He looked over. Her eyes were closed and she wobbled slightly on the seat. “I’m good,” she said, as if sensing his troubled gaze.
He had planned to be at the Old Faithful Inn before noon so they could eat and rest. But it was almost 1 by the time he found a place to park, and they slowly made their way to the grand porch and then into the building. The seven-story lobby was large enough to swallow most of the tourists who, like Sarah, spent time taking photos around the cavernous fireplace.
Sarah returned to him and sat down. Before she would have come back with four new friends, fellow tourists she’d charmed over small talk. Now it was different. “Let’s just get some lunch and move on,” she murmured.
He foraged and returned with pre-wrapped, refrigerator-cold tuna sandwiches, two small, slightly soft McIntosh apples, and two Neapolitan ice-cream sandwiches in chocolate wafers. They ate on the porch. The lettuce in the sandwiches was wilted and mayonnaise dripped onto Sara’s jacket. He passed her two napkins. After the ice cream, she licked her fingers.
The sky was a deep blue but at a distance he could see graying clouds moving in again. They would have maybe enough time to go to Old Faithful and then return before it rained.
Sarah walked with purpose, as if seeing Old Faithful was some event to which she had been invited and was now in danger of missing. And Old Faithful erupted barely two minutes after they were in good viewing range. She raised her camera and shot her pictures.
“Back to the car,” Harry said.
“We have time. Let’s walk to the other geysers here,” Sarah replied, pointing to the boardwalk that led past Old Faithful. “I don’t want to be one of those…you know…came for Old Faithful, saw it, and left, sorts.”
Harry looked at the sky. It was still blue right above him. The air was still, clear and sharp; only his breath moved in and out. But blackness surged at the edge of the horizon. Surely they had a good hour before the afternoon rains came.
“OK.” He was pleased that Sarah wanted to explore more of the park’s features. Her cheeks were a light pink and her eyes focused on the path ahead.
“The Main Loop it is,” he said, taking her hand. “We can see the Chromatic Pool and the Castle Geyser.”
They walked easily on the boardwalk.
The breeze picked up, ruffling Sarah’s hair and cooling them both. The sun slipped momentarily behind a cloud then reemerged.
“Thousands of years,” Sarah said at Castle Geyser. “That’s how long it takes to build this structure drip by drip. It’s endless or close to it. Not us.”
Harry nodded, squeezing her hand. He never knew exactly how to respond to intimations of mortality. He did not know if he was afraid of eternity or death; not being him was not something he could grasp. He would always be him until he wasn’t, but what was that?
Sarah freed her hand from his to pull up the zipper of her jacket. The temperature had dropped at least 10 degrees in the last 20 minutes.
“We need to hurry up.”
A light boom reached them. The air dampened. Sarah looked up. “Another summer storm.”
“Come on, darling,” Harry said, taking her hand and pulling lightly as if trying to dislodge a caramel stuck in a can. Sarah took two steps forward and then shuddered.
“Are you cold?” Harry began to shrug off his jacket with one hand, still holding onto her with the other.
Sarah shook her head. “A little scared. I can’t…”
Harry tugged again and she took another step. “Sarah, you have to walk with me.” He used his firm voice, resurrected from dealing with little daughters. “Come, now.”
Sarah’s voice now had the edge of tears, damp like the air around them. “I’m spoiling this.”
“You’re not spoiling this. The storm is spoiling this.” He tugged harder. The rain advanced toward them, a watery curtain interlaced with flashes of lightning and booms. Harry counted five lightning strikes across the horizon of the storm, a witches’ cauldron of electricity.
Sarah began to walk. He grabbed her around her shoulder, trying to hurry her without tripping her up. Far ahead another pair of tourists began to run along the boardwalk, laughing as they gained ground toward the lodge in the distance.
To their left, a bolt of lightning slashed to the ground. Harry looked around. They could not get off the boardwalk because the ground was treacherous. A bench sat a few yards away, but it had metal legs. He thought he and Sarah needed to be low, lower than anything around them, not to be scorched to a cinder by the next bolt.
Sarah shuddered against him, still walking, her lips sucked under her teeth, her breath too rapid. Without a conscious decision, he wrapped his arms around Sarah and pulled her down to the sidewalk.
“Lay flat.” Sarah pillowed her face in her arms, lying now with her stomach against the planks. He stretched out next to her, feeling her warm, moist breath on his cheek.
“ ‘You are not—’ ” she said.
“I remember this poem,” he murmured, his voice joining hers. “ ‘Not surprised by the force of the storm. You have seen it growing.’ ”
Then he heard only the raindrops hitting the wood with the sound of a timpani and the shush of Sarah’s exhalations in his ear. Then exhausted clouds allowed the sun to steam the air and restore color to the landscape.
Water dribbled onto Harry’s left arm through the fabric of his all-weather jacket as he stood. He offered his hand to Sarah but she tapped it away.
Looking back the way they had come, Harry said, “Still no eruption at Castle Geyser. Let’s go back to the car.”
Sarah nodded. Together they walked on.