3

A stories high bronze blade arced against the empty sky outside the park entrance visitor center. Jim’s stomach turned. High on its dark surface a figure, male, climbed a line of hand and toeholds, full basket of wood strapped to his back. Nola, Outdoor Research hat and dark glasses in place, a stripe of sunscreen down her nose, read from a plaque at the base of the sculpture, “The Ancient Ones.”

“Depends on your definition of ‘ancient,” he said. “If you want to talk about the lizards here or the snakes or how about spadefoot toads—”

“Better check in.”

Despite himself he admired the shape and muscle of her legs as she strode through doors and past the display cases, the dioramas of half naked mannequins petrified in plastic landscapes of sand and stone. “We have a reservation for two nights at Morefield Campground,” she told the freckled lady in the ranger hat behind the desk. “And we want to sign up for the Balcony House tour.”

“You’re okay with heights?”

“The higher the better,” Nola said.

“Two spots tomorrow at ten.”

“Done.”

The woman markered a red x on the map where they were to meet their guide in the morning. In the lower right hand corner, Jim read, “Be Aware: No Cell Service in the Park,” just above a warning about unattended food attracting bears.

“Oh, My Miracle,” he texted from last stall in the men’s bathroom. “Thank you for your loving words, for your faith in us. My terrible bad news: For the next two days, black out—phones don’t work in the park. The good news: we’ll use ESP. I’ll beam my love, you beam yours. Here comes my first—Looooooooooove.”

 

“Nothing like getting away from it all,” Jim said, back at the wheel, stuck somewhere in a long line of fancy RV’s mostly and clustered Harleys towing trailers, climbing the narrow road to the mesa top. “Oops, sorry.” He had forgotten she was now writing in her journal, leather bound, her “poem attic,” she called it. “I’ll keep quiet.”

Nola chewed her gum loudly, feet on the dash again, white-knuckled her pen into the page. He didn’t really give a damn what she wrote. She would have another book, of course she would, out from some bellyache of a press somewhere, and she would be invited around the country for readings, and she would get letters from librarians and high school teachers asking her what she meant by this or that. Good for her. She was strong, no doubt. He needed her to be strong. He’d had his success. His Dragonflies of the Prairie Potholes won the Gaylord Ellis Natural History Prize and landed him tenure. Each week he hosted a local NPR Nature’s Voices call-in show. His founded the Life Cycle String Band, which now played close to two-dozen environmental-ed public school shows a year. Noor joined on fiddle. Just last spring—

Nola capped her pen when he made the right turn up a ridge. Tucked her journal into her pack. Rested her ringed hand on the console between them. He inhaled, nearly closed her fingers in his. Good god, the habits of the body. Exhaled. “The campground’s like miles from the cliff houses.”

“Stop here first,” she said at the lane to Morefield Village. “Ice and milk.” A magpie flickered over.

One parking space remained alongside the long low building, Camp Store, Knife Edge Café. A hand-lettered sheet taped to the store door, read, “NEW: Only cell service in the park. Free Wi-Fi.” Jim latched himself in the one stall of the men’s bathroom, but he had no bars. The Wi-Fi, “CliffHouse,” would not connect. Jim’s muscles tightened. “Fuck.”

Nola stood in the chips’ aisle talking to a tall, craggy man with a ponytail. The man held out his hand at the end of an arm sleeved in inky vines. “Gunter,” he said in what sounded like a fake German accent. “I just tell your dynamite wife we have bonfire at dark, campsite eight, RV loop.”

“We’re tenters.”

“Parachoot in to join wit us. We are tame. Don’t miss big beer jolt at twenny-six hunnert meters.”

Jim had not erected their decade-old dome tent for two years, and sand from their one night in the Badlands’ primitive campsite, a way-stop on their vacation to visit Jerome in Bozeman, still powdered the floor. Phoebe had slept in the car, afraid of ticks, she said, but in the morning, just after sunrise, he found her alongside a dry creek bed watching a herd of bison grazing a golden slope of grasses. She whispered, “How old is that? Geez, Dad. The Serengeti. It could be.”

“Here.” Nola handed him a whiskbroom and dust pan.

“Right. Right.”

By the time he finished inflating their Thermarests, rolling out their bags, hanging their Black Diamond battery lanterns, Nola had unloaded their cooler and their plastic “mess” box, hooked the propane canister to the Coleman stove, unfolded their chairs, and gone. “So be it,” he said. He spit a crater in red dust, checked his phone. Shut it off. Hot. The dry air parched his mouth, nose, and eyes—in a good way, an out-of-the-Midwest, bring-on-the-change way. He and Noor would move west, Taos maybe. He unscrewed the Evan Williams, lifted the bottle to the sinking sun: “To the next life.”

Fresh out of undergrad Jim had been a summer ranger at Bandelier outside Los Alamos. Fought his acrophobia to guide through those cliff houses, every detail adrenaline sharpened. Western tanagers. Pictographs. Lichen. Cholla. Yucca. Juniper. His first tarantula. Horned toads. All a stone’s throw from the birthplace of the bomb. His only time back? A nostalgic honeymoon outing with Nola three months along.

He and Noor would camp in Bandelier, hike Frijoles Canyon, swim naked in the Rio Grande, drink Don Julio, smoke weed and screw like coyotes in the mountain dark. Hell, she started it—two months before Phoebe went to treatment. She kissed him, sought him out at his prairie field plot. She said, “My grandmum told me this was right.”

“Your grandmother?”

“More like my sister. We confide. She said if I kissed you I would know instantly.”

 

4

On his fourth slug of Evan Williams, Jim, now barefoot, slouched in a creaky aluminum chair, raised his hand to each vehicle that rumbled past on the campground loop. Mostly couples. Mostly young couples, except for the loner here and there in some old pickup or van, straw hat pulled low, stroking his mustache, maybe with a mongrel leering out too. Jim and Noor would get a dog. A pair of doves cooed from the long-shadowed scrub.

Maybe Nola went back to the store—for gum, more chocolate, pads—got locked in a conversation. Nola, so damn self-sufficient, would do fine without him, would likely never remarry and become like a literary guru in some wild outpost, maybe northern Minnesota where they’d camped with the kids. She’d publish at least one book crucifying him and that would be that—probably win another Pulitzer.

He tugged on his socks, his boots, circled back on the campground loop, past five campsites, tents pitched, cheery people gathered at picnic tables, crouched by snapping fires—in this heat. Score one for evolutionary psychology. When he turned down the trail to the store, a whiptail nearly dashed across his boots. Something large moved to his left through the brush. A bear? The darkness deepened over the ground, but the sky remained a radiant dome, the sun half gone. A raven hacked its gravelly call three times.

Across the village parking lot, a wet-haired woman in a one-piece flip-flopped out of the shower building, and Jim nearly called, “Nola!” But when the woman turned, she swung her pregnant stomach, walked with a hitch.

“Camp Like a Girl Scout,” stenciled down their sides, two grimy Econolines with Colorado plates, emptied outside the store. The noisy girls, each in a merit badged vest, leaped, staggered, raced, then vanished through the door held by a man in khaki shirt and shorts who said, “Don’t mind my daughter’s troop. They’re past crazy starved.” The temperature dropped twenty-five degrees inside.

The girls jostled him as he scanned the aisles. No Nola. Still no bars in the stall in the men’s. No connecting to the Wi-Fi. “Noor, Noor, Noor,” he said, head in hands.

Arms full, the scouts lined up at the register. “Excuse me,” Jim said to the guy ringing them up. “Your internet—”

“Kablooey in the storm last weekend. Now you’ll learn to live with yourself.”

“What?”

“Tower burned,” he said, “fix it in four days.”

The girls filled the five tables. Phoebe had quit scouting after a month. “The girls are mean,” she said. She didn’t say, “The girls are white.”

Brown men and children in loincloths, along with women wrapped in hides, populated the schlock on the shelves by the door. “The People of the Cliff World.” Decks of cards. Glasses. Mugs. Plates. Illustrated tomahawks. Christ.

Heat. Across the lot three blue phone booths stood like Star Trek transporters outside the glass doors to the Coin Laundry. Jim had just pulled bills from his wallet for the change machine that must be inside, when he saw her beside the row of dryers, Nola, one foot tucked under her on a turquoise plastic chair, writing in her journal. He jammed his wallet back into his pocket.

Perfumed detergent. Rumbling washers. Clanking dryers. A tall man folded towels, tattooed arms. Gunter. Was that even a name? Gunther?

Nola jumped when Jim pressed his finger to her shoulder, her shirt unbuttoned well into her cleavage. “Oh,” she said. “What time is it?”

Gunter said, “Hard to believe how fucking dirty zis travel does.”

Jim showed the face of his watch. “Let’s get dinner going. Tuna noodle night. We’ll play some music.”

Gunter said, “I love poets. You read at our fire.”

 

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